Residents of Montreal homeless encampment defy city orders, refuse to leave
Mayor Valérie Plante says she doesn't want to use force, but invokes safety concerns about the camp
A group of about 50 people who have been living in tents along Montreal's Notre-Dame Street are refusing to leave the small stretch of green space that separates the busy road from a densely packed residential neighbourhood.
"If the police arrive? I'm going to stay planted. I'm not going to provoke anything," said one of the camp's residents, 76-year-old Rémi Fleurin.
"I am proud of my city. But I would like [Mayor] Valérie Plante to come visit us for 10 minutes."
Earlier this month, the City of Montreal said the encampment must be gone by the end of August, though Plante has made it clear there are no plans to physically force the residents out.
Tents started appearing on the stretch of province-owned land in the spring as the pandemic worsened and the city turned a blind eye to camping in public parks.
Housing advocates believe many of the people staying there are homeless for the first time, pointing to the economic downturn provoked by the pandemic.
Plante told Radio-Canada on Monday that many of them even have jobs, but can't afford their rent.
Homeless shelters in the city have been forced to limit their capacity in order to comply with public-health rules during the pandemic. However, the city has been offering more beds.
Last week, the city and the Quebec government promised to open three new temporary homeless shelters in time for the winter.
Plante said the city now has enough space to welcome all the homeless people, and they must move into the shelters as a matter of safety.
"I cannot tolerate a lack of safety for these people or those around them," she told Radio-Canada Monday evening.
With colder weather rolling into southern Quebec, coupled with issues like drug and alcohol abuse in the encampment, problems could arise in the future if they are allowed to stay, she said.
In shelters 'we are treated badly,' says resident
Even then, some living in the encampment say they don't feel safe sleeping amid strangers while COVID-19 is still spreading in the community.
Among those refusing to leave is Jacques Brochu, one of the encampment's first residents. He said there's more than just COVID-19 to worry about in shelters.
"We are treated badly, like children," he said. "Imagine 55 people living in a large gym, in close quarters."
Brochu says the camp's occupants will try to negotiate, should officials insist they leave.
Montreal police spokesperson Jean-Pierre Brabant said officers are patrolling the area to ensure the wellbeing of the occupants, and that they want to evacuate the camp peacefully.
Housing, not shelter, advocate urges
Matthew Pearce, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission homeless shelter, said the city should expect that people living at the camp will be reluctant to leave.
"People will develop a sense of community very quickly and they'll reject being ejected from that community," Pearce said.
That's troubling, he added, because the evicted residents will not have access to resources they need.
Pearce said the camp illustrates how homeless people are capable of organizing themselves into a community.
He urged Plante to reach out to mayors of other major cities to find alternative solutions, given that many of Montreal's newly homeless population are choosing not to go to shelters.
The goal should be "helping them to get housed, not helping them to get shelter," Pearce said.
With files from CBC Montreal Daybreak and Radio-Canada's Tout un matin