MONTREAL – Alexandre was sorting cans one recent morning outside a tent pitched next to a busy Montreal road near the Port of Montreal.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he slept in a homeless shelter, but when sanitation measures forced the shelter to reduce its capacity, he was forced off the streets. For three months now, Alexandre, who refused to give his last name, called this informal camp east of downtown Montreal his home. At the end of November, his was one of more than 40 tents set up on the thin expanse of grass.
“So far it hasn’t been too cold,” he told a reporter. He likes people to be free to come and go, unlike the shelter, which he said was “like a prison”. He thinks he’s going to hold out all winter.
While tent cities like this are new to Montreal, shelter workers and experts say it’s not necessarily a sign that many more people in Montreal are homeless. But they all agree that the pandemic has made homelessness more visible and disrupted the way people access formal and informal services.
“There have been people who have lost their homes and the places where they lived due to COVID,” said Samuel Watts, CEO of Mission Bon Accueil, which offers a variety of services to Montrealers in precarious situations. “How much? It’s not clear.
In a statement on Sunday, the city’s acting director of fire safety, Richard Liebmann, said he ordered the camp to be dismantled after a fire broke out at the site the day before.
Mayor Valérie Plante said the fire “is not only worrying, but could have been tragic and resulted in deaths”.
“As a municipal administration, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of our citizens. We will therefore do what is necessary to accommodate the campers in a safe place now, ”she said in the statement.
Serge Lareault, Montreal’s Homelessness Commissioner, said the pandemic has made the homeless more visible. Before, he said, homeless people spent time in restaurants or day centers, but due to COVID-19 restrictions they were pushed outside. In Montreal, restaurants, cafes and libraries have been closed since October 1.
“We have the impression that there is an increase in homelessness, or at least an increase in the demand for emergency shelter services,” said Lareault. However, there is no shortage of shelters, he said.
The City of Montreal has doubled the number of beds available in the city’s shelter system, including a 380-bed shelter in a converted four-star downtown hotel that is now operated by Mission Bon Accueil.
Sylvain Di Lallo said last week that he had been staying at the hotel for several days with his partner. Before that, he spent almost three months in the tent city. He said he decided to go to the hotel hut when the weather turned colder.
Di Lallo, 51, said he worked as a window cleaner in high-rise buildings, but there hasn’t been much work since the start of the pandemic. Her employer’s biggest client, a university in downtown Montreal, has canceled her contract and window cleaners can’t come up when it rains or snows. He hopes the work will return in the spring.
Di Lallo said he was living in an apartment and was about to move out when his rent money was stolen. It’s hard enough to find an affordable apartment in Montreal, he says, and his bad credit makes it even more difficult.
Staying at the Place Dupuis Hotel “isn’t that bad,” he says. There is a shower in the bedroom and although there is no TV there is Wi-Fi and he can stay with his girlfriend which is not possible in a traditional hideaway. “The only thing that’s a little boring is the wait,” he said. He needs to show up about an hour before the doors open to make sure he and his girlfriend can have a room together.
Watts of Welcome Hall said the goal is not just to give people a warm and comfortable place to spend the night. “It is also so that we can help them meet people who will help them return to permanent housing,” he said.
It requires knowing the needs of the people, he said. A woman with two children who has left an abusive situation has very different needs than a 55 year old man who has lived on the streets for two years.
While the number of people roaming in Montreal may not have increased significantly, Welcome Hall’s other services are more in demand.
“What we are seeing is a lot more people who are accommodated but are struggling to make ends meet,” Watts said, noting that around 1,500 new people have started using their free catering services. since the start of the pandemic. Other organizations offering similar services are also reporting increasing demand.
La Porte Ouverte, a day center in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, started opening 24 hours a day last week, said John Tessier, the centre’s response coordinator. “We have seen an increase in the number of people and a lot of different people than we were serving before,” he said.
He said the biggest impact of the pandemic on the people he works with has been on their mental health. Many doctors now only see patients on Zoom calls, he said, which means homeless people who don’t have access to laptops or computers find it difficult to seek treatment. .
“A lot of people who (used to get) support for their mental health issues can’t get support now,” he said.
There was a time when homeless shelters “saw their service as the end, that it was enough to provide a meal, a bed and a shower,” said James Hughes, President and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, a homeless shelter in Montreal. “None of us do that anymore. We all know our job is housing.
He said 93% of the hundreds of people his organization helps find housing each year remain housed, but there is not enough housing available, especially for people who are chronically homeless and in need of special services.
“The problem of homelessness in Montreal has become the problem of subsidized supportive housing,” he said.
Current and past residents of the tent city in east Montreal know this all too well.
Alexandre said there was a need for more subsidized housing, where people pay 25% of their income in rent. In a commercial apartment, his provident check will cover little more than rent.
Di Lallo said he started meeting with a social worker after arriving at the hotel and hopes to participate in a program that will help him manage his money and provide him with housing.
“If I get an apartment, I’m sure I’ll pay,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 6, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press