Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a rise in citizen intolerance towards the homeless. In Montreal, citizens call the police to denounce the homeless’s disrespect for social distancing in public spaces such as Cabot Square. In Laval, citizens signed a petition asking for the strengthening of security measures around an emergency shelter. And on the street, homeless people face more stigma than ever.
“A big problem we are facing is that citizens stop to take photos of the homeless and make complaints to the police,” explains David Chapman, director of the Résilience Montréal center, who moved his activities directly to Square Cabot for the time of the pandemic.
“These people have the luxury of confining themselves from the comfort of their homes and rather than taking advantage of their luck, they come here to judge the most vulnerable without understanding their plight. It is pathetic ! “, Enraged David Chapman.
“Fortunately, the police have more discernment than many citizens,” notes the big guy with blue eyes. The police come to tell us that they have received complaints and ask us to be careful, but they don’t give tickets. “
Square Cabot, a stone’s throw from the old Forum, is a place well known to the homeless in Montreal. Normally, it is mainly the Inuit who find themselves there. But since the pandemic, a multitude of new faces have joined them. Every day, around 200 people gather there to receive free meals, clothing, cigarettes and a multitude of other psychosocial services.
Some sleep in tents, others sleep on park benches or under a tree. Many are heavily intoxicated or have serious mental health problems. Many talk to each other on their own or insult a friend at the other end of the park. Pimps and drug sellers try to take advantage of the less fortunate.
There is undeniable chaos in these places, despite the presence of several stakeholders from the City and from Resilience who are trying to enforce a certain order.
“Yes, people here have mental health issues. Yes, they are struggling with addiction issues. And no, social distancing is not perfect in the park. People are encouraged not to share their food and beer, but there are cultural differences and it is a process in itself to make them understand the concept of social distancing, “said David Chapman.
“And if, for most people, COVID-19 is the biggest crisis of their lives, it must be said that the homeless have seen others,” he adds. When you have to save your skin every day, when you sleep on the street and you have to protect yourself from being beaten or raped, you don’t have the same fears as others about a virus. “
Social distancing is all the more difficult for homeless people since many are used to staying in small, tight groups, especially at night, for their safety.
Increase in complaints
At the City of Montreal, the Homelessness Commissioner, Serge Lareault, confirms that “the complaints have increased”, generally in connection with disoriented homeless people or people in crisis. Some citizens complain of being afraid, others of the occupation of public space.
“Obviously, we receive complaints, not everyone agrees that we offer food in the parks,” said Mr. Lareault. In a time of crisis like this, where there are even more people in the public space, there is a form of intolerance that rises. We have to make people understand that, yes, there are a lot of people in the parks and on the street, but that there are serious social problems. “
He claims that, to his knowledge, the police have given no tickets to the homeless who do not respect social distancing measures.
Intolerance is compounded by the fear that street people will be infected with the coronavirus, says Lareault. However, this is not statistically the case, he repeats. As of May 27, more than 550 homeless people have been tested, of whom 22 have been tested positive. Homeless people are confined to a hotel while waiting for their results, and those who are positive are then treated at the former Royal Victoria Hospital.
“Being homeless is not an illness,” sighs a man housed at the Maurice Richard arena since he lost his job at the start of the crisis. When I walk the streets with my backpack, people avoid me. It’s insulting. In my backpack, I have my house, not COVID! “
Marie-Chantal remembers having to queue for hours in the cold and rain to get a place to sleep at the start of the pandemic. “We were waiting on the sidewalk behind a barrier and passers-by were taking photos as if we were in a zoo …”
In Laval, the opening of a temporary accommodation site at the Josée Faucher center has stirred the hearts of citizens, reported the Email Laval last April. Some 270 people signed a petition asking for increased security measures in this residential sector.
“We understand that it can be disturbing or perhaps even insecure to host an organization like that in our neighborhood, but we have taken all measures to ensure security and respond quickly to the insecurities that have been shared with us by some citizens” , explains Geneviève Goudreault from CISSS de Laval.
The accommodation site moved on Tuesday, not because of complaints from citizens, but rather because it was necessary to return the sports center to the school board. Homeless people will now be able to go to sleep and eat at the Place des aînés, vacant since the start of the crisis.