Forced out of Montreal encampment, disbanded homeless community spreads out into city

Jacques Brochu held back tears as he recalled waking up at the crack of dawn Monday to an army of Montreal firefighters and police officers forcing everybody to abandon what had become a tight-knit community along Notre-Dame Street.

Most have moved into emergency shelters, but homeless advocate says some are 'resolutely independent'

There were between 30 and 40 people left in the homeless encampment along Montreal's Notre-Dame Street when it was finally shut down for good Monday morning. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

After camping on a strip of grass alongside dozens of other homeless people for the last several months, Jacques Brochu finally has a roof over his head that isn't made of fabric.

But as grateful as he is for the new digs, Brochu held back tears as he recalled waking up at the crack of dawn Monday to an army of Montreal firefighters and police officers forcing everybody to abandon what had become a tight-knit community along Notre-Dame Street.

"I'm still emotional about how it happened," he said on the phone Wednesday.

"People who were there, what they need is a real apartment, but they sent most of the people to shelters instead."

Brochu has moved into a large, unfinished loft and was allowed to bring a fellow camper along as a roommate.

He accepted the last-minute offer late Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours before he was forced to vacate an encampment that had become a symbol of Montreal's housing crisis.

The apartment, which should be finished in the coming days, is part of a pilot project that Brochu would prefer to keep confidential for now. 

A tense situation

On Monday morning, Brochu told authorities that somebody was coming to help him move that day — but police weren't letting anybody in and those who left couldn't re-enter.

"That was the worst communication setup I have ever seen in my life," Brochu said.

He was stuck until the early afternoon while authorities pressured him to leave. He begged for patience, saying he didn't want to leave his stuff behind and he was waiting for help.

Jacques Brochu celebrated his 60th birthday at a tent he called home on a small patch of grass along Notre-Dame Street this summer. Now all the tents have been removed. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The police were polite, he said, "but there was tension in the tent city."

Now Brochu says he wants to dedicate his life to ensuring housing becomes a constitutional right. In the short term, he says he'll do what he can to help his fellow campers find a place to live. 

Not everybody wants to stay in a shelter, advocate says

Brochu says there were about 40 people in the encampment when it was finally shut down.

That falls in line with what Welcome Hall Mission CEO Sam Watts estimates as, after weeks of encouragement, most residents — their numbers reached about 150 at one point — had taken up lodging elsewhere by the time authorities vacated the site on Monday.

Watts said firefighters have the power to evacuate sites deemed unsafe. A handful of fires broke out there, and hazardous materials were found mixed in with all the tents, tarps, furniture and other camping supplies. 

About 12 campers moved into the Hotel Place Dupuis, which is managed by Welcome Hall. Most others were moved into east end shelters, but it is hard to account for everybody, he said.

By Tuesday morning, nothing but trampled grass with tent-shaped cutouts of dirt remained in what was once a thriving encampment with as many as 150 residents. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Watts said many people prefer not to move into shelters where there are rules about consuming drugs and alcohol on site.

"Some people are just resolutely independent and they don't want to be in any facility with any kind of structure," Watts said.

They want the freedom of living outside, and there are several other, more discreet encampments around the city that people continue to reside in, he said.

Adjusting hotel accommodations to meet demand

Hotel Place Dupuis will now open its doors at 4:30 p.m. starting Wednesday, Watts explained, because that's roughly when warming stations close for the night and it will help prevent a lineup to get in at around 8 p.m. every night.

There has been some pushing and shoving in the lineup as staff strive to check roughly 200 people in as quickly as possible all at the same time. Now, with earlier opening hours, the hope is that the crowd won't bottleneck at the entrance.

With strict hygiene guidelines in place and only three people allowed on the elevator at once, the check-in process does take time, Watts said.

The plan is to speed up that process and adjust the hotel over the course of the winter as about 380 beds are eventually made available.

WATCH | Advocates for the homeless say there are few other good options

Homeless people forced to leave camp following fire

2 years ago
Duration 1:07
As dozens of police and firefighters dismantle the homeless camp next to Notre-Dame Street, community organizers say there are no clear solutions for Montreal's homeless people.

"Overall the hotel is running smoothly," Watts said. "We do need to understand we are dealing with a vulnerable population."

They may be struggling with mental health issues or addiction, he said, and some "may not be the easiest hotel guests, but it's our responsibility to treat them with dignity and care."

The goal is to keep everybody safe and not allow the hotel to be a vector for contagion, while connecting people to Montreal's range of resources and working toward the ultimate goal of ending homelessness, Watts said.

Until then, he said, "what we are looking to do is to continue to serve people in a way that is dignified and in a way that promotes safety because we want to keep everybody safe."