Montreal homeless drop-in centre hired security guards and fired its intervention workers

Accueil Bonneau is one of Montreal's largest organizations providing services to the homeless population. In January, it abolished its 11 intervention worker positions and hasn't said how it would replace the frontline service since.

Some Accueil Bonneau clients no longer feel safe and comfortable

Chloé Bourbiaux worked as a frontline intervention worker at Accueil Bonneau for more than five years until she and her colleagues' positions were abolished in January. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Accueil Bonneau's director, Fiona Crossling, responded to CBC's request for comment.

Every day, up to 800 Montrealers without homes file into Accueil Bonneau expecting warm food and familiar faces.

But since the centre cut its 11 frontline intervention workers, some say they no longer feel safe and comfortable there.

Bonneau is one of the city's oldest and largest organizations providing services to people experiencing homelessness.

What started as a soup kitchen more than 140 years ago has since expanded into a place where people can get housing, store their belongings safely and find a sense of community during the day. 

For some, that sense of community is now missing.

The frontline workers are gone, but private security guards contracted by Bonneau continue to patrol the rows of its cafeteria.

"I've never been to jail. I've never even been arrested. I don't feel like I need to be treated like that," said a client whom CBC agreed not to identify because their family doesn't know about their living situation. 

The client reached out to CBC to denounce the loss of the intervention workers at the drop-in centre. Their concerns are being echoed by homeless advocates in the city, who worry Bonneau's actions could signal a change of approach in Montreal homeless services. 

"When you're already a person that is hypervigilant due to police brutality or other situations that happen, they see security guards in the community centre and they're telling me that they don't feel comfortable anymore going there," said Jagruti Patel, who goes by Jago and is an intervention worker at Projets Autochtones du Québec, a community group operating a shelter for Indigenous people in downtown Montreal.

Jagruti Patel, who goes by Jago, is an intervention worker at the Projets Authochtones du Québec shelter. She says several clients have complained about the presence of security agents at Accueil Bonneau. (CBC)

Jago noted Accueil Bonneau is one of the few day centres for homeless people that is open seven days a week in Montreal.

Accueil Bonneau's director, Fiona Crossling, says the workers' posts were abolished in order to make way for a new intervention model the centre will be implementing — but did not say what that was.

Crossling says workers were offered different positions within the centre and that a number of outreach workers employed by Bonneau continue to work in the field. She says the rest of Accueil Bonneau's services, including its housing program and art intervention workers, remain in place.

"We didn't abolish the frontline," Crossling said, explaining that the security guards were hired to help enforce COVID-19 restrictions, but wouldn't continue to work at the centre once those restrictions are no longer in place.

"This is not a new model of working with security guards."

The client CBC spoke with is Indigenous and said the presence of uniformed guards was especially unnerving for their Indigenous and trans friends, who've experienced traumatic events associated with guards or police in uniform. 

"They haven't been nice to us in the past when they're alone and they're not being observed. There's been attacks, there's been violence. There has been racism," the client said. 

They recounted an incident where a friend of theirs who is trans was told they weren't allowed to go into one of the washrooms by a security agent. 

"The intervention workers that were there before, had they been there at that time, that wouldn't have happened."

New site, no more frontline workers

The City of Montreal requested that Accueil Bonneau hire a number of security agents in order to open an annex location at the Grand Quai site, a large building in the Old Port of Montreal in November. 

The city wanted the agents to help enforce physical distancing measures and mask-wearing. 

For months, the guards operated in the background, but Jan. 21, Accueil Bonneau management announced the intervention workers' positions were being abolished, effective immediately.

Accueil Bonneau opened an annex to its drop-in day centre in Montreal's Old Port in November to have more space for clients to physically distance. (CBC)

Five were contract workers and six were full-time employees who were able to move into other jobs at the centre, such as administrative work or in the housing programs.

Jeff Begley, the head of the federation of health and social services (FSSS-CSN) representing the workers, says Accueil Bonneau added more security agents to the site after abolishing the frontline positions.

The move soured already bitter contract negotiations with the workers' union. Accueil Bonneau has requested the help of a mediator from the Labour Ministry.

Chloé Bourbiaux is one of the full-time workers whose post was abolished. She now works for Bonneau's housing program. She is also a union representative. 

She says the impact of removing frontline employees trained to help people in situations of homelessness is wide-ranging.

Bourbiaux worries it could make the clients of Accueil Bonneau feel even more isolated in a period of intense pandemic restrictions and fewer services.

"Our first reaction was: 'Who is going to give these services? Who is going to be there if someone is in crisis or is having a bad day?' And then it was: 'How did we get here?'" Bourbiaux said. 

Bourbiaux is concerned that Bonneau may be setting a precedent. 

"If an organization as big as Accueil Bonneau can abolish its frontline service, my worry is that other organizations will follow suit."

But Crossling said she wants to assure that Bonneau is working on a new model of intervention work that does not involve security guards. 

"It's incredibly peaceful and quiet [at the Centre] and most people who are on the streets, they need somewhere quiet and safe to go and to have access to services that they have," Crossling said.