Everyone has a role to play in ensuring a harmonious coexistence between housed and unhoused residents
On the sidewalks of Milton Street and Parc Avenue, several individuals sit in groups in makeshift camps. They’ve come to know this territory well and call it home. Nonetheless, they share the neighbourhood with housed residents, businesspeople, and students.
Milton-Parc, a Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood, is known for its high concentration of homeless communities. Due to their clashing realities within the borough, these communities struggle to cohabitate.
“It’s a reality that’s been around a long time and the situation has only evolved since then,” said Sami Ghzala, a planning consultant for the city of Montreal. Ghzala lived in Milton-Parc for 25 years before moving to Little Italy.
This feeling is shared by many, including Jonathan Lebire, a street worker of 20 years, who has noticed the neighbourhood that he knows well evolve into what it is today.
“We’re talking about a crisis right now, but the problem has been known for over 10 years,” he said.
The approach of “social cohabitation” — the coexistence between housed and unhoused people — led residents of Milton Park to denounce the situation to the Ombudsman de Montreal (OdM), a resource for citizens dissatisfied or adversely affected by the City of Montreal’s decisions or services.
According to residents interviewed in an OdM report, instances of drug consumption, sanitary issues, as well as physical and sexual assaults have contributed to a growing feeling of insecurity among housed residents of Milton-Parc.
The OdM outlined several recommendations to solve what they now call a “humanitarian crisis,” notably the implementation of a citizen’s committee on social cohabitation. During a Plateau-Mont-Royal council meeting on Feb. 6, the borough approved the committee, dubbed the “Comité de bon voisinage de Milton-Parc.”
Ghzala was tasked with creating the committee and now facilitates and coordinates its meetings. So far, the committee has met twice.
“In our second meeting, we established that tackling the feeling of insecurity was the committee’s first objective,” he said. “Many housed residents and businesspeople expressed that concern.”
However Kody Crowell, a street worker at Plein Milieu, an organization that deals with homelessness in the Plateau, added that insecurity is felt on both sides.
“When neighbours talk about how they feel unsafe, I usually turn it back on them and ask them if they think this individual feels safe sleeping on the street at constant risk of harassment by police, having their things stolen, violence, or getting hit by a car,” Crowell said.
The Comité de bon voisinage de Milton-Parc is made up of seven people who have lived in Milton-Parc for several years. Accounting for the overwhelming proportion of Indigenous unhoused people, the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal also takes part in the meetings. While Indigenous people only make up one per cent of the Plateau-Mont-Royal population, they make up 12 per cent of the unhoused population, according to the OdM report.
According to Crowell, this is a result of many factors.
“With Indigenous homelessness, you know, we’re talking about hundreds of years of colonization,” Crowell explained. “We’re talking about a housing crisis up north. We’re talking about addiction, domestic violence.”
Over the course of its mandate, the committee will discuss ways to improve the coexistence between both populations, cleanliness, and the sharing of public spaces.
“We are all supposed to have the right to safely occupy public spaces,” said Annie Savage, director of the Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal, an organization that defends the rights of unhoused people and provides them with resources. “Unfortunately, someone living through homelessness will constantly be displaced.”
Savage also added that they’ve received reports of a growth in the unhoused population from Plein Milieu.
However, defining good social cohabitation is difficult. As Savage pointed out, the term is mostly used by housed people while unhoused people will rather talk about sharing public spaces.
Crowell even further nuanced the term. “They’re fighting for their life, they’re not thinking about cohabitation,” he said.
The Comité du bon voisinage de Milton Parc aims to ensure everyone can safely occupy public spaces. However, the responsibility doesn’t fall on the committee alone.
“Everyone, every organization, has a part to play in social cohabitation,” said Catherine Lessard, chief administrator of community organizers at the Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CIUSSS). “It isn’t relevant to someone more than another and everyone has a part of the solution.”
The CIUSSS supports community groups that promote social cohabitation, like the Comité de bon voisinage de Milton-Parc. They bridge the gaps between services and demand, while also employing a team that works directly with unhoused people.
“Just like a social worker works on an individual level, we work at the scale of the community,” added Lessard.
While Savage agreed with Lessard that everyone carries a responsibility to ensure harmonious social cohabitation, she saw a lack of willingness from the government in solving the problem of homelessness.
“The municipal and provincial governments constantly pass the ball back and forth on who has responsibility,” Savage said. “Montreal keeps saying that it’s up to Quebec to finance initiatives regarding mental health and community groups specialized in homelessness.”
While government officials and community groups share a considerable load of the responsibility, Ghzala, who coordinates Milton-Parc’s social cohabitation committee, said the committee found that there are there are gestures any housed resident can do to promote social cohabitation.
Ghzala relayed the thoughts of one committee member.
“[They said] conversing with your neighbours, housed or not, [would help],” said Ghzala. “Do you know their names? How many people know the names of the unhoused people who have lived next to them for years?”
Crowell echoed the need to listen to unhoused people.
“These people know what they need and it’s on us to listen,” he said. “Listen to the people who are actually affected by this situation. They know their needs.”
For Lebire, however, the solution to homelessness in Milton-Parc is indeed cohabitation.
“You want for those people to want to reintegrate [into] a society that marginalized them,” he explained. “We’re always defending their rights without ever giving them responsibilities or opportunities for them to be more than victims.”
It’s with that idea in mind that Lebire created his own grassroots organization, Comm-Un. Its aim is to empower people experiencing homelessness and to communicate with them on equal footing.
Lebire says that “it takes a village” to address homelessness. Whether it’s through organizations that empower or give resources to people experiencing homelessness, or by taking the time to know your neighbours, everyone can make a difference in social cohabitation.
Correction: A quote from Sami Ghzala has been modified to attribute the opinions of a member of Milton-Parc’s social cohabitation committee, not Ghzala.