It is 4.45pm and outside the entrance of Maurice-Richard Arena in Montreal dozens of homeless people are waiting to go in. They speak loudly in small groups.
Suddenly, five speeding police cars arrive, with their lights on. They stop abruptly.
The police officers walk quickly towards two security guards patrolling the Olympic Park, a big sports complex that includes the arena, which is usually used by hockey players, figure and speed skaters.
The guards had called the city police shortly before. “What’s happening?” asks one of the police officers, looking concerned.
The security guard who had called points to the groups of homeless, while explaining they are gathering illegally under new coronavirus rules. The police officer’s face suddenly breaks into a wide smile. He looks more relaxed.
“Where have you been in the last two weeks?” he replies. “This is where they live. This is their home.” The security guard looks uncomfortable.
After joking with the homeless people, the police officers leave.
“It is by far the best shelter I have been in”
Every afternoon, between 1pm and 5pm, the arena is closed and disinfected. The facility has been temporarily transformed into a homeless shelter due to the coronavirus crisis.
Almost every night, the 78-bed centre is at full capacity.
“I really like this place. This is always clean, and very calm,” says 55-year-old Bruno Ricard. “It is by far the best shelter I have been in.” A piece of paper with the number 48 hangs on a lanyard around his neck: this is his bed number.
Pierre, who has also been sleeping in the converted arena, agrees.
“We don’t have to leave too early in the morning,” he says, referring to shelters where he needs to leave sometimes as early as 6.30 am.
Inside there is food, showers, social workers and nurses who visit twice a week. The hockey players’ changing rooms, located in hallways around the ice rink, are equipped with camp beds for couples and women.
“It’s not usual that couples are permitted in a shelter. It is a new way of thinking,” says Hugues Guillaume, a supervisor at the arena from the Old Brewery Mission, an organisation that manages a shelter and provides help to homeless individuals.
12 new temporary homeless shelters
The 2,600 square metres skating rink surrounded by 4,500 seats has also been transformed.
On the concrete floor under the 30-metre high ceiling, dozens of beds for men are separated by small walls in cubicles.
“Two shelters in the borough were quarantined, which led to their closure,” explains Pierre Lessard-Blais, mayor of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve Montreal’s borough. He is the one behind the initiative to open the shelter in Maurice-Richard Arena.
Montreal created 12 extra temporary installations as the city’s established shelters became insufficient in the face of COVID-19. Under the new social distancing rules, the shelters are required to operate at 50 per cent capacity.
A review will be necessary after the pandemic. “We are seeing things right now that can be inspiring for the future,” says mayor Lessard-Blais. “After this crisis, we won’t be the same.”
A city media relations officer said that following the initial recovery phase, Montreal will evaluate how things went.
Arena a better solution than hotels for shelters
All the temporary centres are wet shelters, meaning that homeless people can come in intoxicated, which is an unusual practice in the city.
Users were also allowed until recently to leave their belongings in the shelter when they went out, another deviation from standard practice.
At the beginning of the crisis, the city rented a few hotels for suspected cases and at-risk people. But now, most of the shelters are in sports’ facilities.
Hugues Guillaume, the arena supervisor, thinks this is a better solution than hotels: “It’s harder in a hotel in terms of resources. And the hallways, the lifts and the rooms are not ideal.”
However, it is expensive to run these shelters. “It costs the city hundreds of thousands per week,” says mayor Lessard-Blais.
And, in the meantime, speed skating athletes are asking when they will be able to use their arena to train again.