Montreal needs a year-round wet homeless shelter, say users of winter overflow site

People staying at the old Royal Victoria Hospital want more sleep, counselling services

Posted: September 18, 2019

The Ross Pavilion originally opened in 1916 and housed private patient rooms. This winter, the closed hospital served as a temporary homeless shelter. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Last winter, a group of Montreal homeless shelters and day centres teamed up with the city to open a temporary overflow shelter at the old Royal Victoria Hospital site where people were welcome regardless of substance abuse issues.

Over the 90 nights it was open from January to April, the shelter provided a warm spot for 1,585 people and their pets to spend the night.

During the pilot project, researchers with the Old Brewery Mission interviewed 20 users of the shelter to get a better sense of their needs.


"It was important for us to understand who was using the service, was it working for them, and how we had to adapt this going forward," said Hannah Brais, research coordinator.

The shelter was mostly used by men (1,402), followed by women (173) and people who identify as transgender (10). 

According to a report released by the Old Brewery Mission, 55 per cent of those homeless users of the old Royal Victoria site said they were alcoholics.

Hannah Brais is a research coordinator at the Old Brewery Mission. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Half of them said they felt that "a wet shelter was a major service missing in Montreal."

The report defines a wet shelter as a place "where an individual can arrive intoxicated and consume alcohol in a controlled environment on premises."

The report also shows that 60 per cent of respondents would welcome access to psychosocial support at the overflow shelter.


"We were kind of surprised that ultimately people that we thought maybe just wanted a bare bones shelter service actually have this interest in doing some of the self work, working with a councillor," said Brais.

The report notes that participating organizations are considering providing an onsite counsellor in response to this request in 2020.

Notably, the majority (75 per cent) of people interviewed said they would want more time to sleep considering that those staying at the shelter last year were woken at 5:30 a.m.

For years, advocates for the homeless have said too many people get turned away from shelters because they consume drugs or alcohol.

Matthew Pearce, director of the Old Brewery Mission, said his research team learned a lot from interviewing users of the temporary shelter.

Matthew Pearce, director of the Old Brewery Mission, said that many users of the overflow shelter in 2019 weren't frequent users of the city's other services and shelters for homeless populations.


"They don't come to the regular services because oftentimes they are active consumers of drugs or alcohol and since they can't  consume inside a shelter. They stay outside...and they find some other place to be."

"The overflow shelter took away that barrier," said Pearce. "So it revealed a gap on the services in Montreal."

The city's four main homelessness organizations – Welcome Hall Mission, Old Brewery Mission, Maison du Père and Accueil Bonneau – are working with the CIUSSS Centre-Sud and the City of Montreal to re-open the overflow shelter again this winter.

With files from Antoni Nerestant