Montreal·Personal Essay

Living through a pandemic on top of a housing crisis, we need to come together as neighbours

There is mourning when people who have been here for generations disappear. Suddenly, the windows are redone, usually with a nice modern finish, and the people you've become so accustomed to sharing your life with just aren't there anymore.

Homelessness needs to be seen as a communal issue, writes Lyn Leigh O'Donnell

Lyn O'Donnell started Verdun, Ensemble Contre la Gentrification in response to the growing number of evictions she saw in her neighbourhood. (Submitted by Lyn Leigh O'Donnell)

When we talk about homelessness we often envision a very specific person, a stereotype that we refuse to personalize. What most don't envision are tents filled with our neighbours, like we've seen on Notre-Dame but have always existed. I think that's the problem: homelessness isn't addressed as a communal issue. The pandemic has amplified this as we self-isolate amid a serious housing crisis.

I faced unstable living situations in my teens and early adulthood. Since then, I've been fortunate to find stability through becoming a member of a housing co-operative. Through being able to remain in a neighbourhood long enough to form a sense of community, I was able to put myself through college and to build a life here for myself and my children. I am forever grateful for the mutual aid that I've grown accustomed to, but I'm also well aware that this is nowhere near the reality for most, and that it is a great privilege.

Today, I work in mental health and housing. Sometimes, I admittedly feel like I'm just putting Band-Aids on deep wounds that actually need serious stitches. No matter how much I love my job, I know it should not have to exist as it does — and that it's systemic change that will end homelessness.

We live in a country of abundance and the shortage of resources we speak of is a social construct — we can have co-operatives and social housing, rent control and we can regulate the private market just like we can have comprehensive, trauma-informed mental health and addictions care.

'Evict them to go where?' says the sign held as police dismantled the encampment along Notre-Dame Street on Monday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A little over a year ago, I was working in a shelter when my elderly neighbour, who I later learned was terminally ill, called me and asked me to help her. A big development firm had recently bought her building, something that we'd been getting pretty used to seeing. Everyone in the building was being pressured to leave, and only two tenants remained.

There is mourning when people who have been here for generations disappear. Suddenly, the windows are redone, usually with a nice modern finish, and the people you've become so accustomed to sharing your life with just aren't there anymore.

My neighbour had always been there for me, and you could always count on her to be on her porch with a big smile and a "Hello! How are you?" to anyone walking down the street. She showed me screenshots of the developer's website boasting that they have a "95 per cent tenant removal success rate." She never hesitated in her decision to fight what she saw as a great injustice, and what struck me the most about her was not just her willingness to stand up, but her eagerness to do so for her neighbours who she knew were facing similar battles.

Snow falls on a Verdun alleyway. Action is needed now to keep longtime residents in Montreal, Lyn writes. (Submitted by Caroline Perron)

I watched a little old lady take on the world from the chair in her living room, and she solidified my belief that you'll find strength in your neighbours. In the end, she could no longer live independently in her apartment — but her fight inspired me to found Verdun, Ensemble Contre la Gentrification, a collective aiming to connect neighbours in the fight against gentrification in response to the inaction of the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

We have more than 20 housing committees here in Montreal alone that have made the demands for reform very clear. "Fixing" the housing crisis is not just promising to slowly build more social housing. It will require a different attitude, one of collectivism and most importantly, urgency. It should not be a luxury to live on this island, and we can't wait years for the healing to begin. Every single person deserves safe and affordable housing, a space to build a life, make connections, to grow and flourish unconditionally, right now.

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Lyn Leigh O'Donnell is a Montreal-based mental health worker and housing rights activist. As a longtime resident of Verdun, she founded the local grassroots organization Verdun, Ensemble Contre la Gentrification in response to the housing crisis.


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