News  Mayor’s homelessness plan takes heat

Advocacy groups point to funding gaps and misplaced priorities

Earlier this month, Montreal’s mayor, Gerard Tremblay, announced an ambitious plan to tackle homelessness in the city in conjunction with the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). Advocates for the homeless have accused the mayor of simply sweeping the homeless under the rug and city hall of counting its financial chickens before they hatch.

The plan calls for the construction of 750 housing units for the homeless and a respite centre to provide mental health and addiction services. The city’s police will also undergo “sensitivity training” in order to reduce discrimination toward Montreal’s homeless. In order to execute the plan, Montreal is asking for $29.5 million from Quebec, and a further $21 million from Ottawa. 
As part of the plan, the SPVM has also created Équipe mobile reference et d’intervention en itinérence, a mobile outreach program which seeks to aid homeless people who are repeatedly charged with criminal offences and fines.

The city has sought the assistance of the Makivik Corporation, an Inuit non-profit that aims to hire Inuktitut-speaking social workers as well as develop an Inuit- and Native-specific outreach program. Montreal’s homeless are disproportionately Native and Inuit.

The plan was met with criticism and opposition from organizations working on the ground with the city’s homeless.

Matthew Pearce, the Direc-tor General of the Old Brewery Mission – a hundred-year-old homeless support centre – said that although the plan is an important step toward addressing homelessness, it is significantly flawed. “We’re troubled by the plan in that the city has all of the actions it wants to take, but does not have the funds to do it,” said Pearce. “Their plan is dependent on the province agreeing to their request for money. If the city is truly putting homelessness as a priority it also has to do so in its budget,” he said.

Pearce went on to say that that the announcement of the initiative is premature. “I don’t think they should be advertising what they would do with money they don’t have. What they should do is: complete their conversations with the province, find out how much money the province will give, and…then they should develop a plan.”

Isabelle Raffestin, a representative from Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM) – an organisation which defends the rights of Montreal’s homeless population – said that the city’s plan will make concrete improvements in the area of housing, but thought it fell short in it’s treatment of judicial issues.

She pointed out that when homeless people fall victim to arrest and fines from the police, it is often for minor offenses. Public urination and sleeping on public benches can garner fines starting at $144. In the Ville-Marie – or downtown – area, fines for public disturbance and misuse of urban space can reach up to $628, a fee which few homeless people can afford.

“The Commission des droits de la personne [Commission for Human Rights] published a two- hundred page review which accuses the SPVM of social profiling,” said Raffestin. “What we at RAPSIM are asking for is a revision of municipal regulations that are discriminatory,” she said. The SPVM’s mobile outreach project seems beneficial, but the city needs to go a step further in “sensitizing judges and crown prosecutors to the different realities of people, including the homeless,” according to Raffstein.

In a press release dated October 15, Montreal’s Collectif Opposé à la Brutalité Policière (COBP) has also voiced opposition to the plan. Sophie Sénécal, a spokesperson for the organization, wrote in French that the city’s plan only perpetuates a zero-tolerance approach to dealing with the homeless. COBP maintains that the plan does not address the judicial victimization of homeless people and is an effort to conceal the problem of homelessness rather than eradicate it.