Quebec City homeless shelter move prompts complaints

Two months after the Lauberivière shelter moved, complaints from some residents and business owners have sparked a new round in a debate many in St-Roch thought was over, about the neighbourhood’s social mix.

Residents and business owners link its arrival with vandalism and drug dealing

Napoleon and Jamie-Kate Woo say they’re used to seeing a marginalized population in downtown St-Roch, but are worried by a criminal element they say is preying on the vulnerable. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

Jamie-Kate Woo grew up in Quebec City's St-Roch neighborhood in the '80s and '90s, when prostitution and biker gangs were a fact of life. "I went through the really hard, hard times."

She and her father, Napoleon Woo, are co-owners of Wok 'n Roll, the landmark family restaurant that's been at the same address on Charest boulevard for 61 years. 

When Quebec City's largest homeless shelter, Lauberivière, moved two city blocks to a location nearby, the Woos say it brought problems with it. They say they saw more vandalism and drug deals, and it has put them on guard.

"I'm always looking over my shoulder," says Jamie-Kate. "They're not afraid of coming at you."

Woo took her concerns to Quebec City council on May 3. She told the mayor she sees signs "the old St-Roch" is starting to return.

Mayor Régis Labeaume said the city is aware there are problems.

But he took issue with the idea that the bad old days are back.

"One thing is for sure: we have homeless people in Quebec City," said Labeaume."And we can't load them all in a truck and take them to the city limits."

Quebec City's newest homeless shelter has raised concerns in the neighbourhood of St-Roch. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

Woo was taken aback at that response. She says homeless people have always been part of her reality. 

"People come by my kitchen door, introduce themselves, they talk to me." She heats up their food for them, offers them coffee.

Woo says the vulnerable people who need Lauberivière are being preyed on by dealers. And when addicts get into bad drugs, they can become aggressive and destructive.

"The people who use the services are getting a bad name because of the other people running around," Napoleon Woo says. 

Stéphane Leblond operates a bankruptcy trusteeship a few doors up from the Wok 'n Roll. Three weeks ago, he ran down a man who'd broken his storefront window. 

Businessman Stéphane Leblond says the city has been successful in turning St-Roch into a vibrant neighbourhood, but that the arrival of the homeless shelter could change all that. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

"When the police came they told me it was a guy they knew from Lauberivière."

In his 40 years on Charest boulevard, Leblond has seen St-Roch transformed. A rundown mall was turned into the trendy rue St-Joseph, which now houses upscale shops and restaurants. 

But now, he says, people are regularly finding human excrement at a nearby automated banking machine. 

"They brought back families, they brought back businesses and it's all going to end if nothing is done in the short term."

Limits on how much a shelter can do 

This isn't the first time the director of the Lauberivière shelter has dealt with complaints. 

"The situation hasn't changed," says Éric Boulay, who's worked at the shelter for 22 years. "It's just that our new neighbours aren't used to it."

Lauberivière director Éric Boulay sympathizes with his new neighbours, who haven’t been exposed to some of the realities of people living with addiction issues and mental illness. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

Boulay says the city has grown in the last few years and so has the number of people at risk. 

But Lauberivière has come to the aid of more people in that period than ever before. Boulay says half of the people who spend time at the shelter get back on track after one stay.

But eight percent of the people who come to Lauberivière are people Boulay doesn't have solutions for — those with mental illness or serious drug addictions. 

"I don't have anti-psychotics. I don't have a holding room. I don't have a psychiatrist on staff." 

Those are people who don't usually accept help when it's offered. More often than not, when trouble happens, it's the police that respond. 

Boulay says he's open to being a good partner to the agencies whose responsibility is to keep order on the street. But the problems people are complaining about are beyond his reach to solve.

"My mission is to feed and house the people who come to my door."

Cindy St-Jean-Lévesque says Lauberivière has helped her through difficult periods in her life, and says she’s sympathetic to people she sees living on the streets. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

The people who do come to Lauberivière's doors can't help but be aware of the recent media coverage. 

Cindy St-Jean-Lévesque is from the Drummondville area. She came to the shelter in search of support from counsellors.

St-Jean-Lévesque says you get used to seeing people with a lot of problems on the street nearby. But she thinks people should have more sympathy.

'"They're in such deep suffering. They're completely forgotten by society." 

Jeannot is staying at the Lauberivière shelter after being jobless for most of the past year due to the pandemic. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

Jeannot has stayed at Lauberivière four times in the last year. CBC has agreed to use only his first name.

He worked in restaurants and hotels in different regions of Quebec, and has been jobless for long stretches since the pandemic began. 

Jeannot likes the new building. But he thinks the police presence in St-Roch is a bit much.

"Drugs are everywhere. I work in restaurants. You should see how many people do a line of coke before their shift."

Jeannot blames the narrow-mindedness of the people in Quebec City for the complaints about Lauberivière.

Alexandra Tremblay is running to represent St-Roch/St-Sauveur on city council. She says she wants to be a voice for all the residents of the district, including the most vulnerable. (Susan Campbell/CBC )

Alexandra Tremblay lives on DuPont street, a few blocks from Lauberivière. She and her family moved downtown from the suburbs in part because of St-Roch's unique mix. 

The recent media reports about the shelter prompted her to respond on Facebook, calling on people to be more tolerant of people in need. Her post has been shared hundreds of times.

"The things people are saying could be considered discrimination against citizens who are residents of St-Roch, just like the rest of us."

As head of St-Roch’s local merchants’ group, François Lebel is involved in an ongoing conversation about finding ways to make space for people on the margins in a bustling commercial neighborhood. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

A steady stream of clients comes in and out of François Lebel's gourmet shop. Many of them come for his one-dollar coffee. And he greets most of them by name.

"The secret of the success of St-Roch has always been its mixité. It's a jewel."

As the head of the local merchants' association, Lebel has been meeting regularly with the city, mental health and addictions agencies and others to find ways to allay people's fears. Quebec City police will be announcing a plan in the next few weeks.

Lebel is convinced the pandemic is to blame for the current upset because the homeless have been the only people in the streets. He says when restrictions are lifted, they'll melt into the crowds.

"When people come back to shop and work and have fun, the problem will be solved," he says. 

For the head of Lauberivière, having marginalized people become less visible isn't a solution. 

"They'll still exist," says Éric Boulay. "But we won't see them. At the very least this has allowed some people to see what was under their noses this whole time."