After part of Montreal homeless camp goes up in flames, city pushes residents to move out

Dozens of police officers  and firefighters visited the patch of tent-covered green space along Notre-Dame Street on Sunday morning with eviction notices in hand, encouraging people to move into one of the city’s many different shelters.

Borough mayor calls on city and province to do more for Montreal's homeless population

City workers remove debris following fire at the homeless encampment on Notre-Dame Street on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

After a fire broke out at a homeless encampment just east of Montreal's downtown on Saturday, authorities are ramping up pressure on residents to vacate the premises for safety reasons.

Dozens of police officers, city staff and firefighters visited the patch of tent-covered green space along Notre-Dame Street on Sunday morning with eviction notices in hand, encouraging people to move into one of the city's shelters rather than camp out on public land.

In a statement, the city says it's trying to get people to leave the encampment voluntarily and, in recent weeks, more than 60 campers have packed up and left.

"We don't want to come with bulldozers and stuff like that, but here it's not secure and once again we see that this morning," said Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve Mayor Pierre Lessard-Blais.

The fire left a portion of the camp in ruins, but nobody was injured.

Firefighters were able to get the fire under control on Saturday and said it originated at a propane tank that, thankfully, didn't explode.

As many as three fires have broken out at the encampment on Notre-Dame Street since it began forming over the summer. No one was injured during this one on Saturday. (Davide Gentile/Radio-Canada)

Lassard-Blais said Hochelaga-Maisonneuve shouldn't have to bear the brunt of Montreal's housing crisis. He's calling on the province and the city to do more.

"The lack of investment [over] the last 20 years is really hurting us and it's hurting the poorest neighbourhoods, like us," said Lessard-Blais.

"It's a national issue, but it's happening in one of the poorest neighbourhoods."

'People are going to die,' says neighbour

Christian Martin, who lives near the encampment, agrees that the city needs to act quickly.

"They need a place to go," Martin said. "This cannot be like a solution for them in their situation. To stay in a tent outside in -40 ... People are going to die."

On top of that, it's been a hassle for neighbours. He said his kids don't want to play in the backyard anymore due to the noise and syringes scattered around. He said stuff is getting stolen regularly.

Most campers are friendly, he said, but the fire — which burned just steps from his home — was the latest in a series of disturbances since the encampment went up this summer.

"There's fights all the time," Martin said. "We hear screaming, there's people that camp in our backyard."

Comforted by sense of belonging

But many who call the tent city home say they feel a sense of community and belonging. They live in tents, share a makeshift kitchen and look out for each other.

"I think there's some solidarity, you know, that keeps me here. It's a sense of comfort, you know, and I meet lots of people," said camp resident Louis Rouillard.

Montreal has been offering those living on the streets and in encampments throughout the city a wide range of services and places to stay.

Michel Groulx inspects damage from a previous fire, started by a forgotten candle. He says his pet squirrel alerted him to the blaze, possibly saving his life. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

For example, the former YMCA building nearby and a hotel downtown have been converted into temporary homeless shelters.

The city is also offering storage lockers so people can put their camping equipment in a safe place over the winter, and a bus will be running seven days a week to take people to warming stations and overnight shelters.

"We will protect people and keep people safe," said Old Brewery Mission's president and CEO, Jason Hughes, late last month as the city announced more initiatives to help the homeless.

"It's our responsibility collectively to make sure we offer a place to everyone who wants one."

With files from Josh Grant and Radio-Canada

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