Two recent events have put relations between Montreal police and the city’s homeless population in the spotlight: the freezing weather and a video showing one officer’s altercation with a panhandler wearing only shorts and a t-shirt on the coldest day of the year so far.
In response to the controversy around the video, Montreal police Cmdr. Ian Lafrenière expressed frustration that it took away from what he says are the many valuable contributions made during the recent cold spell by his department. At the top of that list is the ongoing work of its small but dedicated homeless assistance unit.
Known by its French initials EMRII, the roving unit consists of five specially-trained police officers and four health care workers. Rather than an emergency response team, its job is to provide long-term assistance to some members of Montreal's homeless population.
With the entire island of Montreal as their beat, the unit does what it can to keep tabs on some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
The unit’s caseload currently numbers close to 80 people, about 20 of whom are currently living on the streets. Clients followed by the EMRII team are those who resist using shelters or local resources, and they frequently generate 911 calls.
Team members spend a good deal of their time driving around Montreal in a police van trying to locate clients in order to make sure they’re okay and provide them with basic necessities like extra clothing, water and snacks like granola bars.
“They’re mobile but they usually have a routine, so we basically know where to find them,” says unit nurse Nathalie Gallant.
The units’ goal, says Gallant, is to develop a connection with their clients in order to build the trust and confidence required to help them with their day-to-day needs. The unit also helps clients access health care, legal aid and even find an apartment.
“The more frequently we can interact with them, the stronger that link will be,” she says.
Such links have taken a lot of work to build since the unit was created in 2009. Sometimes it can take months. And convincing clients to trust the police is not an easy task.
Laurent Dyke, one of the unit's police officers, said the decision to keep their uniforms and drive a clearly-marked police van was taken to avoid deceiving clients, a first step in building that all-essential trust.
This is also furthered by the officers' obvious concern for their clients.
"They're human beings that we get attached to because we see them all the time," says Dyke.
It's hard, often slow-going work that brings big rewards. Only one client from those originally referred to the unit in 2009 remains on its current case list.
Gallant attributes this record to the unit’s policy of rigorous follow-ups with its clients and its efforts to unite the various service providers assisting them around common goals.
Success, she says, is measured in baby steps.
“But even those are big steps,” says Gallant. “They do it for themselves and that’s a big reward.”
“I feel like we’re changing the world one person at a time.”