Last Wednesday, September 30, the Quebec government established a COVID-19 red zone that includes the Greater Montreal area, the Quebec City area, and Chaudiere-Appalaches. Christian Dubé, Quebec Minister of Health, attributes the surge in cases to “community transmission.” This red zone designation has resulted in increased restrictions, including a heightened police presence. This has already led to an increase in fines, ranging between $400 to 6000, for those not wearing masks indoors. The actions of the government and the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) directly harm the homeless population and otherwise marginalized communities, and put racialized people at an increased risk of racial profiling.
Montreal’s homeless community is not exempt from these fines. In the name of enforcing social distancing and other COVID-19 regulations, the police are authorized to charge up to $1,500 to homeless folks for merely existing on the street. For those facing economic or housing insecurity, these fines are often impossible to pay. By-law ticketing is a commonly abused practice by the police – enforcing COVID-19 restrictions is an especially targeted form of this. Unpaid tickets can result not only in a compounded financial burden, but also the possibility of further institutional barriers and incarceration. Tickets – and the fines and penal consequences that come with them – are significant contributors to carceral cycles and the criminalization of poverty. Communities that exist on the street gather in groups for many reasons, chief among them being safety – drug users commonly use in groups to avoid overdose, and homeless women often stick together to reduce risk of assault or harassment. As winter approaches and solutions to the housing crisis remain nebulous, those without homes will begin to rely on spaces that are now even less accessible to them.
On September 3, Manon Massé, one of the two leaders of Québec Solidaire, called out provincial and federal elected officials for neglecting 300 affordable housing units. According to Massé, “while people are sleeping outside because they can no longer find housing, hundreds of public housing units are barricaded because our governments have let them fall into disrepair.” Although encampments such as the one located on Notre Dame Street remain standing, the city plans to eventually remove its residents, claiming the set-up is not sustainable. Evicting people from what shelter they have found out of necessity without providing adequate alternative housing is an act of violence. The combination of limited housing, lack of funding for shelters, and more fines issued has resulted in increased targeting and pressure on homeless populations.
Jessica Quijano, an activist who works for the Native Women’s Shelter, suggested in an interview with the CBC that the government invest in intervention workers “who could facilitate mask distribution and education in vulnerable communities,” instead of allocating more power to the police. Although organizations like the Native Women’s Shelter aim to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for homeless folks, funding is limited. David Chapman, Resilience Montreal’s Project Coordinator, spoke with Unfit to Print regarding the shelter situation in Montreal. Chapman stated that one of the greatest barriers Resilience Montreal has faced in the last few months has been a lack of PPE for their staff. Criminalizing actions such as not wearing a mask and gathering in public will inevitably target populations that lack the resources to comply with COVID-19 regulations. According to La Presse, on April 8, the police accused two different groups of homeless individuals of not properly abiding by COVID-19 regulations. This unethical intervention resulted in a $1,546 fine. When La Presse reached out to the Commissioner for Homeless Persons at the City of Montreal, they did not receive a comment.
In her interview with CBC, Quijano pointed out that “[w]e have an enormous amount of police ticketing and police violence downtown so I don’t think we can leave [enforcement of COVID-19 regulations] to the discretion of the police officers, especially when we have all of the problems of racial profiling.” Last year, a report regarding street checks from 2014 to 2017 found that Black and Indigenous individuals were 4 to 5 times more likely to be stopped by the SPVM than white people. Considering that the pandemic disproportionately affects lower income neighborhoods and neighborhoods which are home to predominantly BIPOC, this means that increased police presence in response to COVID-19 will almost certainly target these demographics. This is not only dangerous for BIPOC, but also neglectful of the requests made by community organizers in the past months regarding police violence.
Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in Montreal’s homeless population; though Indigenous people make up only 0.6 per cent of the city’s population, they make up 10 per cent of the homeless population. It is also important to recognize what homelessness means in the context of Indigeneity, as a direct consequence of settler hegemony. According to the Homeless Hub,“unlike the common colonialist definition of homelessness, Indigenous homelessness is not defined as lacking a structure of habitation; rather, it is more fully described and understood through a composite lens of Indigenous worldviews.” These worldviews include “individuals, families and communities isolated from their relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, languages and identities.”
The government needs to direct its focus and funding towards shelter services and PPE for those facing housing and economic insecurity instead of burdening them with fines for committing infractions they have limited resources to avoid. Moreover, the government needs to prioritize solutions towards affordable housing, starting with the restoration of vacant units throughout the city. The homeless population has been continually excluded in the government’s plans to address COVID-19.
We must act in support of Montreal’s marginalized communities, especially when the government will not. Support local mutual aid groups and harm reduction efforts like Hoodstock and Head and Hands. If you have the means to do so, consider donating to or volunteering for shelters such as Resilience Montreal (contact firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Native Women’s Shelter to help provide PPE for both the homeless population and those who work at these shelters. Hold our government responsible by writing to Geneviève Guilbault, Minister of Public Security, at email@example.com, or by calling her at 418-528-0483and Mayor Valerie Plante’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also message Mayor Plante on her website to condemn the harm that increased police presence and fines will have on communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. To learn more about the city’s housing crisis, visit Logement Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. If you are experiencing housing issues or facing homelessness, you can check out FRAPRU’s website for more information.