Montreal homeless shelter lays off front-line workers, hires security guards
MONTREAL -- This week, amid an outcry over the policing of homeless Montrealers sparked by a man’s death, one of the city’s biggest day shelters laid off 11 of its front-line staff—then promptly hired some security guards.
The guards aren’t meant to replace front-line workers, says the director of the Accueil Bonneau shelter.
But the move, according to many in the sector, is part of a longer-term trend that has accelerated during the pandemic and won’t be going away afterwards, and it has many social workers worried.
“This clientele often already has a bad relationship with people in positions of authority,” such as police and security guards, said one recent worker at Accueil Bonneau.
In a past job where security guards were present, “the front-line workers had to catch up a lot because the [security] interventions were not adequate,” said the worker, who wanted only to be identified by her first name, Stephanie.
Problems would arise when security staff tried to provide basic services to someone experiencing psychosis or, on the other hand, if they actively confronted a client’s skewed perceptions without training, “creating an aggressive crisis,” she recalled.
Accueil Bonneau isn’t the only example of the change. Services for the homeless have hugely expanded across Montreal this year, including many new, temporary facilities, and the presence of guards from private agencies like Garda has also increased.
Shelter directors say security helps them provide basic services efficiently, and they’re aiming for a system that will get people out of homelessness as fast as possible, now and after the pandemic.
“I think it’s moving more towards a different model,” said Sam Watts, the director of one of Montreal’s other biggest shelters, the Welcome Hall Mission overnight shelter.
A YEAR OF CHANGES
Accueil Bonneau never had security guards before the pandemic, but some were first hired last spring.
The shelter is one of Montreal’s oldest and biggest facilities for the homeless, and one of Canada’s biggest as well. It can accommodate hundreds of people.
Security guards were “brought on-board because of the pandemic, initially at the request of intervention workers,” Accueil Bonneau director Fiona Crossling told CTV News.
Jeff Begley, president of the CSN union, represents the laid-off workers there and about seven other sites serving the homeless. He said the guards were needed at first to help enforce public health rules.
“The idea at the beginning was to help, because of the different measures—the distancing and mask-wearing” and other new rules, he said.
Over the course of the year, Montreal’s existing shelters have been asked to set up and staff several big, emergency COVID-19-focused sites, including a ward of a former hospital, two hotels converted to overnight shelters, and a massive tent in the city’s Old Port that shelters people during the day.
Accueil Bonneau, in addition to running its regular day shelter and other properties, has also been tasked with staffing the Old Port tent put up in November, and that’s where most of the security staff have been added, said Crossling.
“We have security guards in our residential buildings, at our main centre, and at the Grand Quai [Old Port tent],” Crossling wrote in an email.
She didn’t respond directly to a question about exactly how many there are in total, but said they “do not replace intervention workers, and nor are they a permanent position at Accueil Bonneau.”
This week, since announcing the 11 layoffs, Crossling said “I believe we have added 2 or 3 more” security guards.
Among the layoffs, six were permanent jobs at the day centre and five were part-time jobs that Crossling said were temporary positions at the Old Port tent.
There were about 65 total front-line staff workers at Accueil Bonneau, Begley said, meaning the layoffs represent about 17 per cent of the front-line staff.
A NEW FACE FROM THE SECURITY SECTOR
Some in the sector, reacting to the announcement on social media, pointed out that one new leader at Accueil Bonneau comes from a security background: Claude Vigneault, the executive director of the shelter’s foundation.
Vigneault took over that job in April. Before, he worked at GardaWorld Canada for nearly two years, and according to his LinkedIn page, he also spent 14 years at the Bureau d'Enquêtes Civiles du Québec, which offers private investigation services to a variety of clients.
He worked for nearly five years at the Commissionnaires du Québec, a large firm that places many veterans and retired police officers as security workers in the private sector.
Vigneault didn’t respond to questions from CTV News, but he told Montreal’s Metro newspaper this week that the shelter has decided this year that its model needed updating.
He said its clients are mostly sent through referrals, not coming from the street, and that the most-needed services, like meals, change rooms, showers, computers and health care, don’t require front-line workers.
“We have therefore made the decision to realign our resources,” he told Metro.
Crossling told CTV News that this year Accueil Bonneau reviewed its model and “found there are ways to improve it so that we are able to help more people get off the streets and into housing,” she said.
“For example, intervention workers are critical to successfully integrating people into stable housing. Different roles are needed in other situations, and we are currently developing a new model that will be more effective in helping people get the support they need (eg. basic needs) as well as access to housing.”
When asked how Accueil Bonneau had settled on its security contracts and whether Vigneault had been involved, Crossling said that the shelter has contracts with two different companies and that they’re handled by the shelter’s director of operations, while Vigneault works on the foundation side.
Sam Watts of Welcome Hall Mission said that the sudden presence of more security is also at the city’s request. When providing free space for the hotel-shelters and the Old Port shelter, for example, the City of Montreal and sometimes other authorities required that these sites be staffed by professional security guards.
The city also has its own contract with Garda, which ended up supplying the workers for the Hotel Dupuis shelter, which Watts is responsible for, he said.
“It's just easier to tap into the city's arrangement they have with Garda than for us to go out and say we need to hire a bunch of security people,” he told CTV News.
A PERMANENT CHANGE OF PHILOSOPHY?
Watts says longer-term changes are also happening, however.
There’s a sense right now among those in the field that it’s crucial to make big-picture changes and to use the pandemic “as a springboard to get us to the place where we really need to be,” he said, including moving people more quickly through services and into permanent housing.
“We’ve been cheerfully offering 19th-century solutions to 21st-century problems,” he said. “The need in the 21st century is not to welcome people into a day centre and warehouse them all day… the need is to help them find housing.”
Begley said that the workers are “really concerned,” however, by the idea that this is a bigger shift.
While the guards were needed at first, the idea that, 10 months later, they could be prioritized over people doing social-worker type jobs is worrying, Begley said.
“Obviously, people that come for these services, they’re not just in need of physical security—there’s the mental health, the security of their whole person,” he said.
“And obviously security guards aren't trained in this kind of thing. So this is a huge concern.”
Crossley said that “of course” the security guards are getting special training on working with the homeless.
But Stephanie, the former worker at the shelter, said guards are worlds apart from front-line staff. However well-meaning, they’re not trained or asked to “intervene peacefully with a non-judgmental attitude,” establishing trust that can take months to build, and ultimately helping workers get their clients crucial services.
“I remember being able to put a man in touch with a nurse,” she recalled. “He had a serious problem with his foot and it was possible to avoid an amputation because we were able to go to him—we knew him and he trusted us.”
She wasn’t one of those laid off this week, having left the shelter several months ago.
“In my opinion, with the increase in security guards… people with mental health disorders will also be affected—those who are not able to name their need, those who do not provide access to themselves and whom we had to observe for months before attempting a contact or a relationship of help,” she said.
Begley said that so far this year, the workers he represents have seen mixed results with the security staff, with their presence sometimes making things worse.
“Since the security has been there at the beginning of the pandemic, they're telling me that sometimes it's the front-line workers who come in and calm things down, because of the tensions that are there because there’s a uniform that represents authority, that represents everything that homeless people want to get away from,” he said.
“Other times the security guards are quite capable and there’s no problem.”
Quebec leaders were on the spot this week, answering questions about the policing of the homeless, after 51-year-old Raphael Andre died in a portable toilet in downtown Montreal, with some believing he was hiding there to escape police attention during Quebec's nightly COVID-19 curfew.
This month, a study by researchers at the University of Ottawa showed through court data that the number of tickets that police issue annually to homeless Montrealers has skyrocketed in recent years.
Watch the video above for CTV's television report, including interviews with Accueil Bonneau's clients.