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.