No home? No problem for the helping hands of the Connexion team

Members of the Connexion team. Front row, from left, Brian Nichol, Emilie Gagnon, Jean-Luc St-Amour. Back row, Laure Coquatrix and Jamie Perzow. Missing: Daniel Silver
Members of the Connexion team. Front row, from left, Brian Nichol, Emilie Gagnon, Jean-Luc St-Amour. Back row, Laure Coquatrix and Jamie Perzow. Missing: Daniel Silver

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, everyone was urged to stay home. But what about people who had no home?

It was a dilemma confronting the homeless of Montreal. With fewer places to take shelter, many found themselves on the streets. And that’s where members of the Connexion team from CIUSSS West-Central Montreal would meet them, offering a sandwich, a comforting hand and a crucial lifeline to healthcare.

The six full-time members of the Connexion outreach team were active rain and shine during the outbreak, pounding the pavement at a time when the streets were virtually deserted. Lugging shopping bags filled with food, they fanned out into alleyways, parks and metro stations, reaching out to some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

“People were hungry and they were starting to become desperate,” says Jamie Perzow, a peer support counsellor and member of the outreach team. “Connexion was the only source of food they had. They were very appreciative. One couple called me their angel.”

Most people associate homelessness with downtown Montreal. But the pandemic thrust the problem into the open in Côte-des-Neiges, according to Catherine Roberge, Coordinator of the Connexion. Day centres were shuttered. And people who normally turned to shelters or a friend’s couch ended up sleeping outdoors instead.

“There was always hidden homelessness in Côte-des-Neiges, and the pandemic just made it visible,” says Ms. Roberge, Clinical Specialist for Homeless Services in our CIUSSS.

The Connexion team began organizing help within days of the outbreak. It partnered with MultiCaf, which runs a popular community cafeteria in Côte-des-Neiges, to make sure the centre’s regulars didn’t go hungry during the pandemic.

Workers like Mr. Perzow would turn up each morning at the Appleton Ave. centre and fill their bags with donated sandwiches, milk, and fruit or vegetables, then head out to distribute them. Some days early on, it was snowing. During the height of the pandemic, when it felt like the whole city had retreated indoors, the members of Connexion seemed to be the only people on the street, Mr. Perzow says.

“I strongly believe our team helped save lives just by distributing the basics,” he adds. “Some people had literally nowhere to go and no money to spend, because they couldn’t panhandle. I really believe they depended on the services we offered.”

These encounters not only provided the homeless with basic sustenance; they also allowed CIUSSS staff to reach those who don’t typically access healthcare services.

One man in his 70s was spending his days in the entranceway to the Côte-des-Neiges metro. Social workers with Connexion succeeded in getting him admitted to St-Mary’s Hospital. The man was diagnosed with dementia, and thanks to the Connexion team, he is now living in an intermediate-resource residence.

In other cases, the team distributed safe-drug kits to those with addiction problems. Others got referrals for mental-health services at the Jewish General Hospital. And the team’s two nurses and part-time physician provided prescriptions for medication or treatment on the spot.

Connexion, which is part of the CIUSSS Mental Health and Addiction Program, flips the direction of healthcare delivery, Ms. Roberge says. Usually, citizens seek out care when they need it. Connexion brings health care to people who might not otherwise get it.

“For members of the team, it’s a vocation,” she says. “They believe there are basic human needs out there, and everybody has a right to eat and have access to health care. It would be inhuman to forget these people.” The Connexion team made sure they weren’t forgotten, even during a pandemic.