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Residents of Ville-Marie homeless camp weigh their options

As winter approaches, resources are still lacking

As the first snow of winter starts falling, Montreal’s homeless population grapples with the lack of services offered to them.

At the beginning of November, police started visiting the residents of the homeless camp under Ville-Marie highway. They told them that they would have to leave, and eventually announced their plan to evict the residents on Nov. 10.

The eviction was planned because of construction on Ville-Marie highway. Sarah Bensadoun, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation of Quebec, explained that the camp was on the Ministry’s property, and that they need the residents to leave so they can safely continue constructions. 

“The Ministry took the decision to postpone the dismantling of the camp to facilitate the relocalization of its residents and give them time to find resources that will meet their needs,” Bensadoun said. She was unable to say until when the eviction would be postponed to.

She said that the relocalization of the residents was outside the Ministry’s jurisdiction. 

“We’re very limited, because there are a lot of elements that are not in the competency of the Ministry of Transports: where they will go, how many places there are [in shelters], when [shelters] will be able to welcome them, etc. We really don’t have that information.”

This announcement sparked action from various community organizations. Some hosted clothing drives and others sent out calls to action. The Montreal Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU), organized a protest against the eviction. Eventually, the eviction was postponed.

“It was quite expected, because there was such a large pushback from the community,” said Sarah, a member of MATU who did not disclose her last name for legal reasons. 

While the eviction was postponed, MATU’s protest was not. The union called for a complete cancellation of the eviction.  

According to Sarah, “[postponement] is a strategy that we’ve seen multiple times at evictions in order to dilute public outrage. We have a postponement, people forget about it, people move on, and are less likely to react as strongly the second time.”

Na’kuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and co-founder and director of development and philanthropy of Resilience Montreal, is also reluctant to cheer too soon.

“It’s not a victory, per se, because people are still living under a bridge, and it’s really cold outside,” she said. “So it’s not a victory. Nobody wants to live under a bridge.” 

She explained that the mobilization lost momentum after the eviction was postponed. Some organizations that had promised a team to help the residents did not show up. “They had a chance to go, and just because the eviction was suspended temporarily, they just stayed home,” added Na’kuset.

She also wished she had seen more shelter directors at MATU’s protest. “If those shelter directors had been there, then they could also give their point of view about the overpopulation of the current shelters and what is actually needed.”

According to Na’kuset, the pending eviction is a symptom of a larger problem: the general lack of resources for the homeless population of Montreal. 

“What happens a lot with First Nation communities is that they all point the finger to a different level of government, saying ‘it’s not my job, it’s their job.’ And then nothing actually gets accomplished,” she said. 

She pointed out the need for more shelters. This would include shelters for people who are under the influence, for people who have dogs, for women, and for men. It would also include shelters that are open throughout the day instead of just at night. 

“That’s not happening, but there’s a million recommendations for it,” said Na’kuset. “The recommendations are out there, you just have to follow them.”

Maryse Paré, director of homelessness prevention and hireability services at the downtown YMCA, leads a team that regularly visits the Ville-Marie camp. While her team was not there on Nov. 10, she explained that they usually go five to six times a week. They check in with  residents from tent encampments to see if they need anything or to accompany them to appointments. 

Paré also explained that there are three major problems hindering tent encampment residents. Shelters are nearing full capacity, there are not enough apartments, and healthcare services are lacking. 

“If these people are in a camp,” she added, “they know the resources, they know that there are shelters, but it isn’t adapted to them. We give them a choice that really isn’t one.”

“Most people wouldn’t survive what they went through,” Paré said. “They made choices, but the choices they had weren’t the same ones others have. They made the best decision they could.”

According to Paré, the camp is more than just a place to live. It represents stability, a home for its residents, and the heart of a community. It is a place for them to bond with others and find a support network. 

There is no simple solution for homelessness, said Paré. She thinks there will always be people living in the streets: her goal is to make their time there as short as possible, and to help them reintegrate into society. She would also like to see more focus on prevention, especially for children in difficult situations who might be at risk of experiencing homelessness in their lives. 

In the meantime, she encouraged people to volunteer at a shelter or to donate clothes and food, especially now that winter has arrived.

Since 2020, with the camp on Notre-Dame street that stayed up for several months, “we can’t dig our heads in the sand and say, ‘Homelessness doesn’t exist,’” Paré said. “It became very visible, and that shocked a lot of people. Homeless camps have always been there, and they always will be.”  

Photo by Marieke Glorieux-Stryckman

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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.

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We are the voice of the people

A Montreal homeless shelter coordinator shares his experience working during the peak of the Omicron wave.

When John Tessier first visited The Open Door seven years ago, he was a drug addict searching for a sense of direction. What he didn’t realize was how much the homeless shelter would change his life, or that he would end up serving the community he once was part of.

Tessier began volunteering for The Open Door seven years ago. “We have a reputation of doing things a little differently,” said Tessier, the centre’s coordinator. “We build a relationship with the people that we serve.”

The Open Door is a homeless shelter and drop-in centre located in downtown Montreal, Quebec for low-income individuals. The shelter also offers various other services like counselling, referrals to mental health professionals, and drug addiction counselors.

Walking up Park Ave, where The Open Door is located, you would never think there is a homeless shelter right in front of you. The shelter is in the basement of a church — not easily spotted by the naked eye.

When someone first arrives at The Open Door, they must go down two flights of stairs until they are eventually greeted by volunteers at the front desk. 

Afterwards, the volunteers accompany the clients to either a bed, the kitchen area to get something to eat, or a shower. There are many showering stations around the shelter providing access to shampoo, soap, and other personal hygiene products. 

Before becoming the centre’s coordinator, Tessier was an Open Door client. “I was a drug addict and I needed services as well,” he said.

“After I allowed myself to get straightened out, I wanted to give back. I started to volunteer, and a job opened up.”

Tessier’s day-to-day activities at the shelter are always different. “There is no standard day, I coordinate the entire centre. With the intervention team, we might be accompanying people to court,” Tessier explained. “Right now, one of our long-time users is in the hospital at the rehab centre. One of our team leaders is there with her, helping her get set-up and figure out what her next steps are.”

The pandemic shifted the usual routine at the shelter, as The Open Door couldn’t accommodate as many people as usual. With the tighter living quarters at the shelter, sanitary measures became of utmost importance. The volunteers and staff were equipped with gear such as N95 masks, goggles, gloves, and more. 

The Omicron wave has made Tessier more aware of the issues in this community. In particular, the challenges of how Montreal’s shelters are at over-capacity.  He recalled the shelter experiencing waves of Omicron infections during the first few weeks of January 2022. This was a very difficult time, even with the isolation period only being five days for essential workers who caught the virus.

Despite the challenges, Tessier said that The Open Door staff remain resilient. When the Omicron wave hit the shelter, everyone still came to work, even when the virus seemed to be getting worse by the minute. “I commend the volunteers who were still coming in here,” said Tessier.

“This Omicron wave hit us, and a lot of places had to reduce their capacity,” said Tessier. 

On Jan. 10, 2022, CTV news published an article about a 74-year old homeless man who died in the freezing cold. The news of this tragic death sparked up a lot of debate among Montrealers. “It’s so sad and heartbreaking,” said Tessier in response to the news.

“This is ridiculous and tragic that this happened,” said James Hughes, the president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission.  “In many ways it shouldn’t be surprising, but it is still shocking.”

Hughes explained that the Old Brewery Mission – one of the largest resources for homeless people in Quebec – experienced a tough January this year. Almost reaching full capacity, the shelter has been unable to accommodate as many as they would have liked. In order to do so, Hughes and his team had to turn to large soccer stadiums. During the period of Jan. 13 to Feb. 6, 2022, the Old Brewery Mission was set up at the State de soccer de Montréal. Since then they have been able to stabilize.

A lot of people that come to the Old Brewery Mission only seek their services and do not want to stay overnight, explained Hughes. “A lot of people just say no, I don’t want to stay here for a long time, I am just hungry and I want to warm up.”  

“We expect [the unhoused people] to work with a counsellor and work on a housing plan,” said Hughes. “We’re trying to reduce homelessness above everything else.”

Creating long-term housing plans is one of the main goals that The Open Door shelter works towards with their clients. 

“We have an Inuit specific housing program. However, we only have 16 spots in that program,” said Tessier. As a result, there is a long waiting list. 

Projet Logement Montréal (PLM), a housing program that seeks to help house homeless people get apartments, recently made an offer to The Open Door in January 2022 to help support their clients with a more long-term housing plan. According to Tessier, the housing program offered The Open Door 25 spots for clients to join their program, so they could live in available apartments.

However, PLM is not a long-term housing solution. It helps unhoused people for up to three months, with their rent and utilities taken care of during that time. Afterwards, they are on their own. 

“There is not enough funding to put people into long-term housing, and that is the main issue,” said Tessier.  “If we had around 50 spots with the Inuit housing program that would be great, but since we don’t the waiting list gets long.” 

According to Tessier, implementing a transitional house could be a potential solution. In the transitional housing, the unhoused people would have continuous support from the intervention workers until they have a stable living situation. 

“A lot of the centres in the city feel institutionalized and that’s why people won’t go to them,” said Tessier. Most people that come through the shelter do not want to feel forced to adhere to a certain set of regulations. “They do not want to feel like they are in a jail or a hospital.” 

Due to the various services that The Open Door offers, such as food and clothing, laundry services, shelter during the day, counselling, and referrals to professional mental health and drug addiction, more people tend to want more of those services. 

For Shawn MacIsaac, a client and volunteer at The Open Door, the shelter offers him options that he has not seen at others. “I was referred to The Open Door by a friend of mine, who was a full-time volunteer, and he told me that they offered only vegetarian meals, which was great for me because I am a vegetarian,” said MacIsaac. 

The Open Door is staying afloat thanks to the volunteers who work there and the people in the Montreal community who make generous donations.

When Victoria Kalisky, a political science student at McGill University, first read the headline about the death of a homeless man outside in the cold, she was motivated to start a GoFundMe campaign. Kalisky wanted to raise money to help homeless people in Montreal gain better access  to winter coats. Since the beginning of January 2022, Kalisky has managed to donate over 150 winter jackets to The Open Door. 

The shelter receives winter jackets that are lightly worn and second-hand, according to Tessier. However, receiving new, much-needed winter gear hits differently.  

“It is just a whole different feeling when we give someone something brand new with the tags still on it,” said Tessier. “The smiles that we see when we are able to give people that are amazing.”

“The secret to this type of work is building up trust and treating people as if they are family. We haven’t lost many workers here because when you walk away from this place, it’s like you are walking away from people you truly care about,” said Tessier.

Daphnée Dunleavy has worked as an intervention worker at the Open Door since August 2021. Central to their role, intervention workers provide guidance and support to the people inside the shelter. “I find it’s a really important experience because you are dealing with people who basically have nothing.”

At The Open Door, Dunleavy can be seen helping people around from her spot at the front desk. Clients come to her with their questions. 

As Dunleavy works the front desk, MacIsaac volunteers at the breakfast service shift in the kitchen. 

“I start at six in the morning, with the breakfast service, like today I made the oatmeal that we are serving,” MacIsaac explained.  

Part of Dunleavy’s motivations for working at the shelter are to combat dehumanizing stereotypes of homeless people. When someone starts working at The Open Door, they begin to understand what kind of a community exists at the shelter, she explained. “Everyone knows each other, it’s really amazing.” 

Hughes said that the best way to help one another during challenging times is by getting together in big groups, donating clothes, and starting food drives.

“When you do see a homeless person, just go out and say, ‘Hey how are you doing today?’” said Hughes. “Acknowledge them, they are humans above everything else.”

With spring around the corner, homelessness is still an ongoing issue. 

“Homelessness doesn’t start in December and end in March,” said Hughes. “We need innovative solutions all the time.”

Photo by James Fay

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JMSB student starts petition to turn Grey Nuns Residence into temporary homeless shelter

In just four days, the petition collected over 3,000 signatures

After the recent deaths of homeless people in Montreal, David Desjardins, a third-year John Molson School of Business (JMSB) student at Concordia University, wanted to do more than just raise awareness about the city’s growing homelessness crisis.

Since the start of the pandemic, Montreal’s homeless population has increased from a pre-pandemic figure of around 3,000 to hundreds, maybe thousands, more. While experts have not been able to pinpoint the exact figure, the increase has manifested at homeless shelters, with staff reporting that they are operating at full capacity, though this is not enough to adequately serve the city’s increasing homeless population.

Meanwhile, several student residences in the city remain closed due to the pandemic. At Concordia, the Grey Nuns Residence — a heritage student residence and hotel building located near the downtown campus — is closed, with almost 600 beds unoccupied since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

Desjardins decided to call on Concordia University to step in, and started a petition on Jan. 28, directed towards President of Concordia University Graham Carr, to turn the Grey Nuns Residence into a temporary homeless shelter.

Part of Desjardins’ motivation for starting the petition includes believing that “we need to act with urgency to find these people somewhere to stay, at least temporarily, or else we will see bloodshed.”

The petition, which started off with a goal of 150 signatures, currently has over 3,000.

“It’s been pretty impressive, I’m very happy to see all the support we’re getting,” said Desjardins.

In addition to it’s high occupancy rate, the Grey Nuns Residence boasts a cafeteria space, several multipurpose rooms, and 234-seat silent reading room. There are no specific plans on how this space would be used; instead, Desjardins said his petition is meant to get the ball rolling.

He believes new resources made available for the homeless during the pandemic, such as the Old Royal Victoria Hospital being converted to a homeless shelter in August 2020, “was a great first step.”

However, Desjardins believes that, in many ways, efforts to help the homeless have fallen short.

“I wouldn’t even say the government is doing much to be quite frank.”

Since enacting stricter lockdown measures on Jan. 9, Legault did not exempt the homeless population and homeless shelters from the 8 p.m. curfew. That decision not only meant that homeless people could incur fines up to $1,500 for being outside after curfew, but that shelters could no longer accept new clients past the curfew as well.

Even after the death of Raphael “Napa” Andre, a 51-year-old homeless man who froze to death in a portable toilet just a few metres away from a shelter after curfew, Legault said he would continue to refuse exempting the homeless population from curfew regulations.

“You have to understand that if we put in the law that a homeless person cannot get a ticket, well then anyone could say “I’m homeless,” explained Legault.

Severe backlash followed Legault’s stance, with politicians and community members calling on the premier to have compassion towards the homeless. On Jan. 26, a Quebec Superior Court judge reversed Legault’s regulation, ruling the homeless were no longer subject to curfew.

Following the government’s rocky commitment to the issue, Desjardins looked for new solutions to help with the homelessness problem. He believes more organizations and businesses should be willing to help.

“I think that anybody who does not take action in these times where it’s needed, are going to be guilty and are going to have blood on their hands,” said Desjardins.

If the project is approved, Desjardins thinks the university would have to find creative ways to fund the project. While he would allow a portion of his own tuition to fund the project, he believes many students would be against their own tuition being used.

“Once we have a green light, we can look at finding ways to get food, clothing, personal protective equipment … and all kinds of other things that are going to require funding for this project,” said Desjardins.

For now, he has contacted staff from the Grey Nuns Residence, and says he would be open to being involved with the project if it goes forward.

“I’m just doing everything I possibly can to make this happen at the moment,” said Desjardins.

 

Photograph by Christine Beaudoin

Interview conducted by Hadassah Alencar and edited by Adam Mbowe.

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