Zero tolerance for homeless camps in Montreal

The Montreal Police Service (SPVM) has tolerated makeshift homeless camps since the start of the pandemic, but not anymore. Organizational groups fear that this decision will no longer threaten the health and safety of these vulnerable people while the health crisis is not over.

“They need a place to sleep, to live,” says Marjolaine Pruvost, coordinator for the Table of Montreal Community Organizations Fighting AIDS (TOMS). “These repressive measures distance them from their community and available resources, and only increase their stigma,” she regrets.

This opinion is shared by the Network for Helping Single and Itinerant People in Montreal (RAPSIM) and the Network for the Aboriginal Community in Montreal (NETWORK). With one voice, the three groups are calling on the authorities to back off and be lenient until the COVID-19 crisis is resolved.

In the past few weeks, temporary homeless camps have sprung up in Montreal. They took shape in the city center, around Cabot Square and Place Émilie-Gamelin, but also in Morgan Park in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, in particular.

Until now, the police have been careful not to intervene at night, but have demanded the dismantling of the facilities at dawn, lest they become hotbeds of contagion. But, since June 1, it’s zero tolerance.

“It is a concerted decision of the City, Public Health and the SPVM”, explains to Duty the police force’s Aboriginal liaison, Carlo De Angelis. Safety and health issues – such as sometimes not respecting physical distancing – have motivated the change of course, he says. But also the return of citizens to the parks of the metropolis in gradual deconfinement. “If we had tents everywhere, it would be more difficult,” he argues.

“Acts of violence and vandalism” were committed in the three parks where makeshift camps have appeared, reports the City of Montreal. In the boroughs concerned, the police were therefore asked to no longer tolerate them. For the rest, “the principle of tolerance at night is still in force,” says one.

That said, a camp was dismantled in Verdun before June 1. And according to the groupings of organizations joined by The duty, dismantling has given rise to a certain brutality, for example personal effects thrown in the garbage.

“It went well everywhere, in a peaceful manner,” replied the SPVM agent De Angelis. “The police did not touch any tent. Whoever has “regular contacts” with organizations on the ground ensures that people living in camps have been informed of the new directive in advance. And that on June 1, they vacated the premises by themselves.

As for Verdun, the officers were concerned about the risk of fire and the proximity of the camp to the water, he said.

Not for everybody

Normally, tents are prohibited on Montreal territory under a municipal by-law. But in the context of COVID-19, they have multiplied since organizations, restaurants and other local services had to close their doors. The large shelters also had to reduce the number of places available in order to enforce the instructions for physical distance.

The City and the CIUSSS du Center-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal have mobilized to open several emergency accommodation centers. Hotels, community centers and arenas have been requisitioned. While many homeless people use these resources, they are not suitable for everyone, notes Nadia Lemieux, community organizer for RAPSIM, in an interview.

This is an example of people struggling with addiction, intolerance of the rules or the discomfort of using crowded shelters during a pandemic. In their case, the tent has emerged as the ideal solution. This prompted the Plein Milieu organization in Plateau-Mont-Royal to distribute it to its customers.

The CIUSSS du Center-Sud has also ruled, in a notice, that these shelters can be “a safe and preferable option to a refuge, hotel or other type of temporary accommodation” for “a part” of the population itinerant. However, the importance of thinking about defined places and rigorously respecting government health guidelines is stressed.

Nadia Lemieux of RAPSIM fears that the homeless who lived in makeshift camps – often “the most marginalized” – are now even more isolated. Not to mention the added stress and anxiety for those people who have already “lost a lot of bearings” with the pandemic, she said.

Organizations are also at risk of losing track of certain people, adds Alexandre Huard, head of support for organizations for the Native Community Network in Montreal. “Street workers knew where to find” those who camped in the same place, he said.

Huard is also concerned that people are now being pushed into hiding alone to sleep in their tent. With the effect, in the case of those who consume, increase the risk of overdosing and dying out of sight.

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