'We feel bad enough that we live like this': Montreal's tent city expands into dozens
MONTREAL -- Susan lives in a tent overlooking Notre-Dame St. East and the Port of Montreal.
Susan (who did not want to give her last name) spent the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis moving from temporary shelter to temporary shelter, continually nervous about where to sleep at night.
Eventually, she and two other friends set up tents on the green space near the bike path that snakes its way between Ste. Catherine and Notre Dame streets near Dezery Square.
"We feel bad enough that we live like this," said Susan.
A recent Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) survey found the number of Canadians who have experienced homelessness may be higher than reported, and the COVID-19 crisis is only exacerbating the issue.
Montreal's city officials are monitoring the tent situation closely to avoid similar situations as those seen in other North American cities such as Vancouver, Nanaimo, Oakland and Toronto where tent cities have become semi-permanent.
TENT NUMBERS RISING
Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve Mayor Pierre Lessard-Blais said he and his city council is concerned about the rising number of tents along Notre-Dame East that have sprung up as far west as Frontenac Ave.
"The COVID crisis made the homelessness issue even worse. There was already a problem in Montreal, and now it got worse," said Lessard-Blais.
Outgoing Old Brewery Mission director Matthew Pearce said there are likely a number of reasons the community of tents has sprung up, including lack of space at shelters or fear of entering them during the health crisis.
"One of them is, yes, it is harder today for a homeless person to get beds in a shelter because we have less beds available to promote distancing," said Pearce. "There were temporary resources set up, but many of them have closed so there aren't as many beds, also there are homeless people who are afraid of going into shelters because they're concerned about the safety relative to COVID, so they're deciding not to go in."
Lessard-Blais said there are beds available at the shelters in his borough, but that other factors may play in people not taking advantage of them.
"We're not suffering a lack of beds, but we also understand some of them prefer being outside in a tent against being in a shelter where they have to be in bed by 10 or 11, and they have rules that are restraining," he said.
CLEANLINESS AND SERVICES
Susan said residents are careful to pick up garbage (including needles, which she admitted are being used in the area) and ensure that the area remains safe.
The borough mayor and Montreal police confirmed that the area near Dezery Square is kept clean.
Montreal police (SPVM) spokesperson Louis-Andre Bertrand said officers continually assess the situation in consultation with the community organizations in the area.
"Currently, the camp is set up on Notre-Dame St. East, far from parks and other public places in the area," he said. "Until now, there has been no issue of safety or cohabitation between the different residents of the sector."
Susan said she prefers the food and social work service at her camp than those she received in the temporary shelters and arenas.
The Red Cross hands out snacks and lunches and hot food is available at night. Social workers from Cap St. Barnabe are on site to talk with those in the area, provide them with phones if needed and direct them to services.
"In the long-term, they want to have some place to live and food, just basic needs," said a social worker, who was not permitted to give her name for publication.
In addition to providing information and resources, social workers help homeless people break isolation, which is an ongoing problem among the population at large.
"That's what they need the most is for everybody to understand that they are humans," said the social worker. "The thing they like the most is they have someone to talk to. Most of them don't have anyone to talk to."
Quebec Minister of Social Solidarity Jean Boulet announced Thursday at a press conference that the CAQ government would increase support for eight community organizations that work with the most disadvantaged in society.
The government has freed up $736,972 to be divided up between eight community organizations.
The organizations are located in six regions of Quebec.
Camps have become commonplace in many cities in North America, but that has not as yet been the case in Montreal.
"There was already a problem with homelessness before the crisis, and the crisis made it worse," said Lessard-Blais.
The longer the tents remain in place, Pearce said, the harder it is to remove them once those living there become attached the area, and give it a name.
"They're going to feel it's their community, 'leave us alone,' and it gets harder to close this place down," he said.
The borough's mayor knows that a campground like the one near Dezery Square cannot last long, as the warm weather ends.
"It's definitely not a situation that can last many months. In terms of security, the winter itself would be a problem. From the beginning, we know that this settlement is not durable in time."
He said Montreal's city council is working on opening new services and shelters for the homeless, including one in Hochelaga. An announcement is expected next week on the new resources.
"We'll make sure that these people have some kind of services. There is already some confusion between the services that closed during the crisis and which ones reopen."
The social worker who spoke to CTV News said part of their job is informing people in need of what services are open, what have changed services, and health measures required to access them.
"We really want to bring people back to the services that are open to them," said Lessard-Blais.
In the long-term, all agree that people need to be in permanent housing, not shelters.
Pearce said rapid action is needed to find a place to live for those living in tents.
"Get them housing with a rent subsidy that allows them to manage that," he said. "It's cheaper than finding them a shelter, and they're going to reject that anyway. These people need to be housed."
Lessard-Blais agreed. He said the housing crisis goes hand-in-hand with the homeless problem that has led to the tent community.
"In the end, the City of Montreal, we're the ones in the field helping as much as we can with these people who are having a difficult time, but homelessness and housing are definitely not exclusively the responsibility for the city," said Lessard-Blais. "Times got harder for those in need before the crisis... It's a reality for those people. All levels of government have to cooperate and make sure that we give the best work for those people."