Thousands of unhoused people are victims of a broken system and especially vulnerable as winter arrives, yet little thought or empathy is given to the issue.
As the streets get colder, it becomes even more urgent to address the homelessness crisis in Montreal. Temperature drops are life-threatening to this vulnerable population and exacerbate their already harsh living conditions. It’s time to talk more in depth about homelessness and its causes.
According to the CBC, the population of unhoused people* in Quebec doubled between 2018 and 2022—totalling nearly 10,000, half of whom are in Montreal. I’ve noticed that casual discourse around homelessness is often damaging and fails to address deeper issues. I have heard the topic be approached with disgust or contempt toward unhoused people, sometimes accompanied with demeaning jokes and comments. This contempt should instead be directed toward the systems that cause homelessness and the governments that do little to address the issue.
The lack of affordable housing and subsequent housing crisis is just one cause of homelessness. Traumatic events, extreme poverty, domestic abuse and discrimination can all play a role. Those who struggle with sickness and mental illness are more susceptible to homelessness. Systemic and personal issues create dire situations, especially for marginalized groups.
In Montreal, Indigenous people are 27 times more likely to suffer from homelessness than other demographic groups, according to a recent count. The Inuit community is particularly affected, making up 25 per cent of unhoused Indigenous people. This is the result of systemic racism, inter-generational trauma, and lack of services for those who need them most—but most of all, it is a direct example of the ongoing effects of settler colonialism.
It is essential to view homelessness through this lens and realize that unhoused people are victims of an oppressive system. We must be particularly mindful of this fact and put pressure on governments to establish better solutions.
The city’s relationship with homelessness is a complicated one. On numerous occasions, Mayor Valérie Plante has called on the provincial government to provide more funding and work with the city to make a long-term plan. “[W]hat I’m looking for is a bigger conversation with the entire ecosystem,” Plante said to The Montreal Gazette in June, “…and that includes the provincial government and the Ministry of Health and Social Services, because they are in charge of homelessness, mental health and drug use, because often these things are connected.”
In early November, Social Services Minister Lionel Carmant announced that the Quebec government will grant nearly $10 million toward increasing space in shelters and establishing emergency services as the cold approaches. While this is a positive and essential step, it is not enough.
Broad reform is needed. Alberta advocates for a “Housing First” approach, which aims to break the cycle by setting up unhoused Albertans in permanent housing and providing them with ongoing support. This support would aim to address mental health, employment, and addiction. Montreal should take a similar approach with a decolonial focus, and move away from emergency solutions.
If you want to help, it’s impactful to volunteer and donate when possible. But first of all, we must flip the narrative around homelessness. Mocking and pejorative comments are dehumanizing, and it’s essential to consider the systemic issues at play. The simplest way to help is by speaking mindfully about unhoused people and considering the causes and effects of homelessness.
*A note on vocabulary: the term “unhoused” is growing in usage due to the sometimes derogatory connotations of the word “homeless,” and to emphasize that unhoused people may have outdoor or community spaces they call home. In this article, I switch between the two terms, but use “unhoused” when referring to the people themselves for this reason.