After two years of being online, the yearly Nuit des sans-abri de Montréal is back

The Nuit des sans-abri comes back after two years of pandemic to hold a vigil to support people experiencing homelessness and raise awareness about the difficulties of living on the street

After gathering for speeches at Phillips Square, community organizers and participants marched to Place Émilie-Gamelin for the 33rd annual Nuit des sans-abri. There, organizers met for a solidarity vigil where people experiencing homelessness could gather around fires and have food and drinks with those present. People played music and made art. Activists put up tents to raise awareness on the various issues affecting the homeless population. 

La Nuit des sans-abri was started in 1989 by several community organizations and spread to various cities across Quebec. Since then, it is held each fall to raise awareness about the difficulties encountered by people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and social disaffiliation. The number of people in this situation in Montreal and throughout Quebec has been on the rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to community organizers.  

Marianne Daigle, a community organizer for the Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM) and co-organizer of the Nuit des sans-abri, explained that this year’s event was the first time since the start of the pandemic that it  was held in-person, which the organizers hope let people feel more connected. 

“After two years of the pandemic, it seemed essential to us to have this gathering, which is a mobilizing moment of awareness for civil society,” said Daigle. “The pandemic brought a sense of solidarity, of sharing and now that the pandemic has calmed down we have many more people in precarious situations or who were on the line and that the pandemic has pushed over the line.”

Daigle explained that there is a lack of adapted services for homeless people in Montreal.

“We need to diversify the actions and the type of resources,” said Daigle. “Long-term, temporary and emergency housing, we need all of these because homelessness has a thousand different faces.”

Daigle added that, on top of the labour shortage, community organizations also lack the necessary funding to meet the demand for their services. She explained that the current social and political climate are pushing more and more people out on the streets.

“Each homeless person has an individual journey but there are systemic issues,” explained Daigle. “The housing crisis has added a lot, even the increase of the cost of living that affects us all.” 

Jacques Brochu, an artist who has experienced homelessness, was present to showcase his work. Brochu discussed his experiences using art therapy, which he discovered through the harm reduction community organization, Dopamine, in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Currently in a difficult housing situation, Brochu hopes to soon live in a housing co-operative and eventually become an art therapist. 

Brochu and other people present were quick to denounce the “not in my backyard” effect, from residents opposed to having homeless shelters built in their neighborhoods, ultimately stigmatizing people experiencing homelessness.. Participants also mentioned a lack of political policy and exposure visibility towards the displaced. 

“The most difficult thing is the lack of commitment of the political class,” said Brochu, regarding the recent provincial election. “Politicians don’t want to actually make decisions,” said Brochu.


New homeless shelter in downtown Montreal: a temporary solution to a deeper problem

The shelter’s opening became controversial following complaints from business owners

On Nov. 3, a temporary winter emergency shelter opened its doors at Hotel Place Dupuis in downtown Montreal. While the new overnight shelter raised concerns among local merchants, its operator believes the new location is not responsible for unlawful activity in the neighbourhood.

Located near the Berri-UQAM metro station, the overnight shelter will provide 380 beds for those who need a place to stay during the cold winter months. It is operated by Welcome Hall Mission, a charity organization that has been supporting Montrealers dealing with homelessness and poverty since 1892.

According to Samuel Watts, the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, the shelter’s opening was part of a broader plan for dealing with the reality of COVID-19, as well as the usual winter measures that are necessary in Montreal.

“We don’t want to have people out on the streets, especially in the cold weather,” said Watts in an interview with The Concordian.

However, despite providing a safe and warm place to spend the night, the shelter sparked tensions with the neighbourhood’s business owners. Sébastien Caron, co-owner of a Copper Branch restaurant located just three blocks away, believes that the project’s lack of supervision creates an unsafe environment in the area.

“Employees are afraid to come to work. The walk from the metro station to the restaurant is quite intimidating: they’re screaming and threatening us. Our customers tell me the same thing,” said Caron.

However, Watts said that the shelter cannot control what happens on the nearby streets, especially since drug trafficking and violence are not new to the area. In fact, the shelter is located across from Place Émilie-Gamelin, “a square that’s been nefarious for a variety of illegal activities for the past 25 years,” according to Watts.

Watts added, “It’s disingenuous for the merchants to suggest that the shelter is increasing and adding these problems that have long existed in the area.”

On Nov. 26, the temporary winter shelter welcomed 237 people to stay the night. Hotel Place Dupuis had over 100 available beds that day for anybody else who wished to stay at the shelter. For Watts, however, having a large capacity is not something he would consider an achievement.

Reducing the demand for such shelters and providing permanent affordable housing should be Montreal’s solution to homelessness, according to Watts. He added, “The notion that we need to continue building up the emergency shelter capacity is equal to insanity.”

Indeed, even with over 35 homeless shelters around the city, Montreal still faces a worrying homelessness problem. According to Mayor Valérie Plante, anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 Montrealers this year do not have a place they can call home.

Moreover, Plante announced that homelessness has recently become a more alarming issue.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve noticed that there’s more and more people that are actually in the streets,” said Plante while giving a tour of the shelter on its opening day.

Therefore, Watts believes that all parties — homeless organizations, business owners, and the government — should come together and collectively aim for solving this problem, especially since it became even more serious during the pandemic.

“What COVID-19 has taught us,” Watts explained, “is that there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There’s only us, and we have to find ways of working together.”

The Hotel Place Dupuis shelter will operate throughout the winter season until March 31, 2021.


Photograph by Kit Mergaert

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