“It would be nice to remember the good times with Elisapie. […] The way she’d shout “Oh my stars!” when something surprised her or how Elisapie’s face broke into the widest grin when she spoke to her grandchildren on the phone. She brought warmth to the laneways and haunts of west downtown Montreal, where so many of the city’s unhoused find a place to hide when the sun goes down,” Christopher Curtis writes of 61-year-old Elisapie Pootoogook, an Inuk elder who was found dead in the construction site of a René Levesque Boulevard luxury condo tower on November 13.
As of November 12, five major Montreal homeless shelters have limited their capacity due to reported COVID-19 outbreaks. Last winter, provincial pandemic restrictions forced shelters to dramatically reduce capacity, services, and either limit hours or shut down completely. In January, Resilience Montreal was forced to temporarily reduce its capacity from 80 clients a day to just 12, and was only able to provide clients food to be eaten outside. Combined with the curfews enforced from January to May, restrictions on shelters – like those faced by Resilience Montreal – forced many unhoused people to remain on the street during the coldest nights of the year. The Service de police de la Ville Montréal (SPVM) redirected some unhoused people into overcrowded shelters with COVID-19-positive residents. This shows the provincial and municipal governments’ blatant disregard for the unhoused community, and proves that the restrictions placed on shelters throughout the pandemic have been extremely harmful to unhoused people. The pandemic isn’t over; this winter will likely be as harsh as the last.
Shelter problems are not merely due to pandemic-specific pressures, nor are they exclusive to the challenges of the winter months. Sophie Hart of Mobilizing for Milton Parc told the Daily that many avoid shelters due to safety concerns unassociated with COVID-19. Many shelters are “dry,” meaning they are unable to accommodate those with alcohol or drug dependencies. With winter quickly approaching, increasing the number of shelter spaces and expanding the hours and resources of current shelters is more important than ever. The preventable deaths of Elisapie Pootoogook and Raphaël André, an Innu man who froze to death in a portable toilet last winter, are direct results of a lack of safe shelters and secure housing. This is a systemic issue rooted in settler colonialism that continues to prioritize profit generated from gentrified land development over the safety of Indigenous peoples.
Sam Watts, CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, one of the affected shelters, calls for shelters to be kept open for 24 hours, and for 120 additional beds to be added to shelters in the downtown area. He told the Montreal Gazette: “When you have resources that are open from 9 to 3 or from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., they don’t always offer that continuum of care and the connection back in the kinds of services and accompaniment that a person in a vulnerable situation really needs. You take somebody off the street for a few hours, but then they head right back out there and they’ve never connected [sic] to an agency or a resource that could be of assistance to them – ” resources include intervention workers, social workers, and housing experts. Watts claims that an additional 150 shelter spaces are needed in order to fulfill the needs of unhoused people and avoid a “humanitarian crisis.”
In October, Junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant and Minister Responsible for Montreal Chantal Rouleau announced an “ambitious” five year plan to improve services for Quebec’s unhoused population. The $280 million plan notably allocates $77 million to assist unhoused people and those at risk of homelessness with secure housing, $14 million to reduce homelessness among Indigenous communities, and $53 million to emergency and transitional housing facilities, $10 million of which would be reserved exclusively for women.
While this plan has been touted as a responsive strategy to homelessness, it is yet to be seen whether this will result in significant material changes for Montreal’s homeless population. Shelter organizers believe this amount is only the start. Nakuset, director of the Native Women’s Shelter and co-director of Resilience Montreal, remarks of the plan’s shortcomings: “once you break it down by five years you’re like ‘that’s it? That’s it?’ And how many shelters are there and how many more need to be created?” James Hughes of Old Brewery Mission shares this sentiment, arguing that Quebec should be investing more into services for its unhoused population. Considering that 45 per cent of Montreal’s unhoused population is Inuit, the housing crisis is undoubtedly tied to gentrification and systemic violence rooted in displacement. 0.05 per cent of the budget is allocated toward a generalized, unspecified Indigenous population – this demonstrates a lack of understanding of the communities the plan is meant to serve. Montreal’s current response to the growing unhoused population – an increase exacerbated by COVID-19 – is to further criminalize homelessness. According to Montreal en Action, unhoused people recieve “close to 40 per cent of the fines issued in Montreal,” leading to a cycle of debt and dangerous interactions with the SPVM.
On November 12, a group of Inuit women gathered at Cabot Square to honour the seven Inuit women who have died since the spring of 2020. They reflected on Minnie Napartuk, Tammi Sutherland, Lucy Qaunnaaluk, Klara Okkuatsiak, Dinah Matte, and Kitty Kakkinerk. They spoke on issues of language barriers, violence, addiction, and housing services – factors that, if addressed with adequate resources, could have prevented these deaths.
Currently, The Open Door, Resilience Montreal, and MTL AID are requesting donations for winter coats, boots, snow pants, gloves, wool socks, tuques, and hand warmers. Innovation Assistance, Resilience Montreal, and Nazareth Community have open volunteer positions. Year-long donations to all organizations include snacks, hygiene and dental products, camping supplies, and menstrual products, as well as monetary donations. A full list of most essential donations can be found on MTL Solidarity Supply’s website.