Earlier this month, the Quebec Ministry of Transport (MTQ) told an encampment of unhoused people sheltered under the Ville-Marie Expressway that by November 10, the police would force out anyone remaining in the area. However, pressure from protestors and the media resulted in the police postponing the eviction indefinitely. Now, the Ville-Marie camp and other unhoused communities face a looming threat of eviction. The municipal government’s coercive threat of eviction demonstrates the city’s failure to remediate the homelessness crisis, instead worsening it through displacement and police intervention.
For those unable to find shelter, the encampment under the expressway has been a “survival camp.” According to a November 7 press release from Resilience Montreal, mediators from Cabot Square and staff from Resilience Montreal were able to support those at the encampment despite limited resources. Sheltering under the expressway is preferable to other areas where unhoused people are more likely to face harassment or be kicked out by police or where they might be more vulnerable to harsh weather. “It’s comfortable where we are,” Lucy Partridge, who lives under the expressway, told CTV News, “Nobody bothers each other.”
The press release explains that those living under the expressway had been visited by police several times a day and told they would have to leave their encampment imminently. Yet, according to Resilience Montreal, no adequate alternatives have been presented for those who will be displaced by the evictions. Montreal’s homeless shelters are lacking in space and resources, which means that seeking entry into shelters can be difficult or even impossible. The May 2022 Ombudsperson Report on Homelessness, titled “Don’t Look the Other Way,” reveals that the accommodation capacity of shelters – which had decreased during the pandemic due to health-related restrictions – continues to fall short of demand. The report further identifies an absence of transition shelters and social housing adapted to Indigenous and Inuit cultures.
Apart from the issue of limited capacity, other restrictions prevent many shelters from accommodating people. Those who experience or have experienced severe trauma, addiction, and mental health issues may be ineligible for existing housing programs and current emergency shelters – the reality for some who live under the expressway, per the press release. Furthermore, there are many reasons why individuals may not wish to stay in a shelter, including COVID-19 concerns, a desire for stability and autonomy given the regulations of many shelters, and past experiences of abuse or violence in shelters. While encampments like the one under the Ville-Marie Expressway are not a long-term solution to Montreal’s housing crisis, displacing individuals without providing any better alternative for affordable, safe housing is certainly not a solution either.
The proposed eviction of those under the expressway is not an isolated incident. In December 2020, an encampment of approximately 60 individuals on Notre-Dame Street was violently removed by firefighters and police. Police began gathering at the site before dawn in large numbers; there were patrol cars, officers on bicycles and horseback, and officers in riot gear. Officers established a large security perimeter and prevented social workers from accessing the site. By late afternoon, city crews had seized tents and other personal belongings. Several months later, a new encampment of approximately 20 people was formed not far from the eviction site on Notre-Dame Street. Residents had done everything they could to ensure their setup was safe, and a fire inspector invited to the encampment had approved the setup. Despite this, in May 2021, the MTQ warned residents of eviction mere days in advance on the grounds of “fire safety issues.” The ministry’s letter threatened residents: “If you do not comply with this request, all necessary measures to put an end to the illegal occupation will be taken, without further notice or delay.” By afternoon on the day of eviction, a large group of police dressed in riot gear began to dismantle the encampment, and the residents vacated the site. As of this past summer, CBC reports that the city is seeking to hire a liaison officer to help dismantle other encampments that pop up, alluding to a continuation of these evictions.
Evicting and dismantling encampments where unhoused people have found a degree of safety, community, and stability is deplorable on the part of the city. The justification provided – that there are plenty of spaces available in shelters for those experiencing homelessness that would be safer and otherwise more optimal – is untrue. It also completely disregards the wants and needs of many unhoused individuals who cannot or choose not to stay in shelters. Instead of deploying police to destroy and displace the communities created at such sites, city workers must meet the wants and needs of unhoused persons while respecting their rights to mobility. For example, city officials can take action to improve safety conditions for those who wish to live in encampments, by providing clean water, durable temporary shelter suitable for harsh weather, and fire safety infrastructure. The current response of displacement and hostility continues to endanger the unhoused community.
The eviction of encampments is just one tactic with which the city criminalizes and polices those experiencing homelessness. A report published last year revealed that close to 40 per cent of the fines issued in Montreal went to unhoused people. A spokesperson for the SPVM said that, following complaints of “disturbances,” additional personnel were deployed in the area surrounding the new homeless shelter that opened at Hôtel-Dieu over the summer. Policing and issuing fines is not only potentially traumatic for unhoused people, but it also perpetuates cycles of debt, making it even more difficult to access housing and employment. “The cops are just going to keep kicking us out everywhere we go,” Partridge told CTV.
Ahead of future evictions of encampments, you can protest to the best of your ability and safety by, for example, attending protests organized by the Montreal Autonomous Tenants’ Union and others in response to the proposed eviction of the encampment under the Ville-Marie Expressway. If you witness an individual receiving unjust treatment by police on the grounds that they are experiencing homelessness, you can submit an online complaint for police misconduct with the Ombudsperson of Montreal, with the Police Ethics Commissioner, or at any police station. Other resources for witnessing police misconduct as a bystander can be found on the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality website, where you can report misconduct as well. As winter approaches, you can also donate to and get involved organizations that provide resources and support for Montreal’s unhoused community, such as The Open Door, Resilience Montreal, and Chez Doris.