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Homeless Encampments: Let’s Do Better

06 July 2023
James Hughes

Late last week, the Québec Court of Appeal confirmed a lower court decision overturning an injunction that had, for several months, protected members of a homeless encampment living under the Ville-Marie expressway from eviction. The Ministry of Transport had been seeking the removal of the campers since November 2022 and, since last Thursday, the way is now clear for it to begin repair work on the span. No one questions that the repair work is necessary. But what about the campers?

First, the good news. Two of the 15 campers are already housed. And another five are well along the road to securing stable and affordable housing with the accompanying community services necessary to help them keep their dwellings for the long term. It has taken many months for our staff at Old Brewery Mission to develop sufficient trust with these individuals, some of whom have been at the site for years, to begin the arduous process of accessing appropriate housing. The steps include, at a minimum, preparing and remitting income tax returns (a necessary pre-condition to obtaining a rent supplement), identifying a suitable dwelling, negotiating a lease with the public or nonprofit landlord, and then moving the person in. However, with time running out, what will happen when the police arrives, probably this week, to evict these people from the site? We’re hoping to complete the whole administrative process and move them into housing shortly but this presumes we’re able to keep track of them as they move to a new encampment. We’ll certainly try.

The bad news is that four of the original campers moved on to parts unknown a few months ago. We don’t know where they are. And another four individuals who remain in the camp have, so far, been resistant to engaging with front line service teams to identify alternatives to camp living. At Old Brewery Mission, we’re worried they too will disperse and we won’t have the opportunity to re-engage with them.

Camps keep popping up in our City. One on Parc Avenue near the mountain. Another in Ahuntsic was shut down by police last week. The City’s single response is to dismantle the camp once it receives enough complaints from local residents.

In the Waterloo region of Ontario and in British Columbia, the courts have created a “right to camp” in public places when the shelter system cannot accommodate campers’ individual needs. The original injunction issued by the Montreal court in the case of the Ville-Marie campers also suggests there now exists in Quebec a right to camp in public spaces, limited by the competing right of the State to make necessary repairs to the physical environment where the encampment is located. Where is this growing jurisprudence taking us? To the legalization of camping in public spaces in Montreal?

The better road would be the formal adoption of a progressive right to housing in Quebec. It could be expressed in many ways including, for people living in an encampment, the creation of a Montreal “Streets-to-Homes Team” that would support front line street workers in their efforts to accompany campers towards a home of their own. Not shelter living… but a real residence like all of us would want and deserve. This is not a simple proposition, especially during a housing crisis, but it is possible if the right people with the right expertise are working together in harmony on a common objective.

Our modest success at the Ville-Marie encampment is proof we can do way better than a simple dismantling policy. Unhoused people living outside with all its associated dangers deserve better.

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