Montreal has shelter beds available, so why are people choosing to live in tents?

Welcome Hall Mission CEO Sam Watts says governments need to think about long-term solutions like affordable housing units, not just shelter beds which accommodate someone for a night.

Welcome Hall Mission CEO says people will leave their tents when they are offered something better

A homeless encampment in the Hochelaga area has popped up just east of where one was established last summer. (Steve Rukavina/CBC)

With Quebec extending some temporary measures put in place to shelter homeless people during the cold winter months, there is no shortage of emergency beds for those in need in the Montreal area.

However, that hasn't stopped homeless encampments from popping up in Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Ville-Marie and the Plateau-Mont-Royal over the last few weeks.

Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, says the priority needs to be getting people off the streets and into affordable housing — not just offering them a place to sleep for a night.

"I think it speaks to the fact that we haven't come with enough in the way of permanent solutions that meet everybody's needs. Now, people have freedom of choice. Certainly, there are spaces inside that are available today," he said.

"We've been very good at putting temporary patches on complex social issues. What we need to get better at is bringing short, medium and long-term solutions to the problem."

Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, says the government needs to offer a better situation to people who prefer living outside to a shelter bed. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Watts and his workers are visiting the tent communities to encourage people to seek out shelter services.

"What we're trying to do is go and meet with people and try to show them that maybe there's something better that could be available to them," he said. "We need to be offering somebody something that is better than their current situation and when we can do that, then we will be successful."

He said governments mobilized quickly to offer temporary services to the city's homeless population during the pandemic, including extra emergency beds and priority vaccination.

Some of these extra services, which were supposed to end a month ago, will now be in place until the end of June.

Now, Watts wants to see officials looking at the next step, developing long-term plans to get people out of tents and makeshift shelters.

"I don't think that we should be asking people to spend time camping outdoors in the city, in Montreal. I just don't think that's appropriate," said Watts.

A mayoral issue

In a partially wooded area in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough, about a dozen people have set up tents and mobile campers east of where a similar camp was set up last summer.

Mayoral candidate Denis Coderre paid a visit to the encampment on Tuesday. He said there should be more permanent shelter space available.

"It's not an election promise, I want the city to do it now," he said.

Coderre said he wants to reclassify some hotels that are suffering due to the pandemic as rooming houses which could serve as transition housing, suggesting that current deals the city has with some hotels could become permanent.

Mayoral candidate and leader of Ensemble Montreal Denis Coderre visited the camp in Hochelaga on Tuesday. (Steve Rukavina)

Last week, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante emphasized the work her administration is already doing to address this issue. Plante said that of the 600 social housing units she aimed to create, 80 per cent are already done.

Another 250 units are slated to be built in the next two years.

With files from CBC's Shuyee Lee, Steve Rukavina