Comedian Mike Ward offers mini-shelters for the homeless, sparking debate in Montreal about how best to help
A very public offer from a Quebec celebrity has brought into full view a debate over how best to help Montreal's homeless population, as well as people without shelter in other cities.
Comedian Mike Ward offered to donate to Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante 25 insulated mini-shelters for the city’s homeless.
“Give it a go and I can install them within one week,” he challenged her in a public Facebook message, adding he had first made the offer last winter to no avail.
“A simple yes from you and no one else will die of cold this winter.”
Two Montrealers have died from exposure while sleeping out of doors within the last two weeks. Ward argued that his structures could be used for “the most at-risk people, those who refuse to sleep in homeless shelters.”
Plante turned down the offer publicly, thanking Ward for caring about the issue but saying it’s staff, not shelter, that’s missing from the equation.
“It’s not suitable places for all types of clients that are lacking, but people to operate the resources intended for those who are homeless,” she wrote.
Instead, she invited Ward to volunteer his time, signing up at Je Contribue, the provincial platform for volunteerism.
Quebec Solidaire MNA Catherine Dorion wrote a similar response, telling Ward that his “intention is great” but in practice, it’s not physical space that’s missing.
“If you're not too slammed and want to help, your time, humanity and spare hands would be greatly appreciated,” she wrote.
“Just about every organism is in a very destabilizing workforce shortage and the staff who remain are suffering burnout.”
She also said that in “the street world,” putting a shelter down on a given corner isn’t enough, without staff there to help.
“The street world isn't so different from the rest of mankind... and I can tell you right now that it's not the elderly fragile lady who needs it the most that will end up in your shelter. This is why we need humans the most,” she wrote.
Ward hasn’t given up on the idea of donating the shelters—he’s just moved on from offering the them to Montreal, his agent said.
“The 25 mini-shelters have already been offered to the cities of Victoriaville and Drummondville,” Michel Grenier told CTV News on Tuesday evening.
SMALLER CITIES, TOWNS SAY THEY DO NEED MORE SHELTER
Victoriaville will take five of the 25, said a spokesperson for the city, Charles Verville.
Other details haven't been worked out, he said, including when exactly the city will take possession of them, or where exactly they'll be placed.
"We'll work with community organizations... to find the places that are appropriate," he said, whether that means near an existing facility, to make use of its staff, or elsewhere.
The extent of homelessness in Victoriaville, with a population of about 45,000, is a far cry from what's happening in Montreal, which was estimated this fall to have 4,000 people who are currently without homes.
Victoriaville does have a crisis right now, but on a different scale -- adding five mini-shelters will largely solve it, said Verville.
A new shelter opened this winter with six beds, and it's over-full, he said. "Five temporary shelters should meet the rest of the need," he said.
A spokesperson for Drummondville hasn't yet explained the plan in that city.
Two other managers at Quebec shelters also expressed interest in the idea, including one in Montreal.
Marc Meloche, the coordinator of the Croisée des Laurentides, a homeless shelter in the town of Ste-Agathe, told CTV News he had sent a message to Grenier to see if he could get some of the mini-shelters.
Meloche told CTV that shelter space is exactly what he's lacking in Ste-Agathe.
"I have space on my land. I'm running out of room inside," he explained.
A major Montreal shelter could also potentially find some use for the shelters, said a staff member there.
Mel Richer, an assistant director at the Old Brewery Mission, said the shelter finds the idea “very interesting,” though they haven’t spoken to Ward yet.
The CEO of the shelter hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment on how they could potentially be used.
Meanwhile, the City of Toronto has also discouraged the use of unofficial, small outdoor shelters. Last year, a court order was issued, saying any kind of camping or outdoor living on city land is prohibited, and these kinds of structures create safety risks, including of fire -- though the Toronto carpenter who was building tiny homes for free had outfitted them with smoke detectors.
'OUT OF THE STREET FOR GOOD'
Plante repeated to reporters on Tuesday saying while she can’t speak for other cities, in Montreal the problem seems clear: it's the staffing of social workers who know how to intervene in crises and help people, or convince people, to find shelter.
“For other cities, I don't know what they’re dealing with. But in Montreal, there's no problem of spaces,” she said.
“The real problem is how do we accompany, how do we support, those people in need that are very vulnerable, that are dealing with different issues.”
However, she said it’s “hard” to turn down offers of help and she thinks such offers are a good sign.
“What I'm understanding right now is that people… feel useless. They feel like they don't know what to do to support people that are in the street right now,” Plante said.
“And I feel that this is a very kind feeling. And it's good that we're feeling that way for the most vulnerable, but right now, maybe we need as a society to question how we've been dealing with homelessness in the past 10 and 20 years.”
The strategy has been to create indoor space in the winter and then in warmer weather “they got back to the street,” she said.
“What we need is social housing,” she said, as well as a bigger investment in staff.
“I think as a society, that's what we all want—people to be out of the street for good,” she said.
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