Homeless people who are routinely refused from shelters because of cited misconduct will now have a place to sleep. The City of Montreal will offer a new bed service at select locations to keep the homeless from braving the cold overnight.
Initiated on December 15, 2008, the service, known as the respite program, provides a small, private room to guests refused elsewhere for a period of 72 hours in an effort to reintegrate them back into the general shelter system. The urgency of such a program is marked by the death of André Gagnon, who died on a park bench from sub-zero temperatures in late December, days after the program began.
The Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM), a coalition that defends homeless rights, hopes that the inclusive nature of the respite program will attract those who previously avoided city services.
“The minimum is to offer a place where they can spend the night out of the cold…and to help them to take more long term steps,” explained RAPSIM member Patricia Viannay.
While emergency mechanisms have existed since 2003 to guarantee a bed to anyone who requests one, according to Cyril Morgan, Director of the Welcome Home Mission – an organization that reaches out to the homeless – many still choose to sleep outside or are refused access to shelters.
“We found that many times, men get turned away because they were not received properly or because they have trouble getting their story across. They need somebody who will sit down with them and will say, ‘look, what’s your problem, how can we help you, and where will we go from here?’” Morgan said.
While intoxication, violence, disorderly behaviour, and drug use are often-cited reasons for refused access, RAPSIM suggested that the homeless are often refused for reasons more complicated than these labels suggest.
“[Refusal] is related to a combination of problems: substance abuse issues are mixed with mental health issues,” explained Viannay, adding that compound problems complicate the shelter’s response to their case.
Morgan explained that the respite program aims to improve the allocation of city beds, since most nights they are left empty as Montrealers prefer to sleep on the street.
“I don’t know of anybody who has requested a bed in Montreal, and [for whom] none were found,” Morgan said.
To date, the respite program has seen the Pavillion Patricia MacKenzie add two beds for women and Welcome Hall add four more for men to provide the respite service. Roughly a dozen people have used the service so far.
Jacques Bertrand, also of RAPSIM, regretted that economic constraints have prevented the creation of a new location catering specifically to the needs of respite guests, thus requiring an intensification of existing infrastructures instead.
“What we did was less spectacular. The work was done quickly,” he said, adding that city institutions consulted only briefly before taking action.
According to Viannay, there are few real alternatives to shelters in Montreal. Inadequate fallbacks include cafés, open stairways, bus shelters, park benches, garbage dumpsters, heating vents, or the underside of sandwich boards. There exists no legal way to force the homeless into shelters if they decline. The city seeks to catch part of the population neglected by the shelter system with the respite program.
Rejent, a man living on the street since his wife died six years ago, expressed no desire to seek shelter in a city institution, describing them as depressing. He was not convinced that the public is concerned with the circumstances of the homeless.
“We die like flies, and the world doesn’t care. We are a disposable community,” he said.
Funding for the respite program – provided by the province and the city – will expire at the end of the winter, but Matthey Pearce of the Old Brewery Mission, a shelter in Old Montreal, stressed the need for it to be extended indefinitely. “While it may be true that you won’t die of the cold on the streets of Montreal in July, there are other reasons why you might be victimized and assaulted, and at risk in the summer. So we think this service should be yearlong,” he said.
The city resurrected the model for the respite project from L’Echelle, a pilot project run by the Old Brewery Mission a few years ago. L’Echelle ran out of funds and closed operations at the end the end of the winter, and the respite program will likely go the same way.
Click on the audio link above for the audio version of this report produced in collaboration with CKUT!