Legault's comments about curfew and the homeless out of touch, advocates say

Groups working the city's homeless population are worried about how the province's curfew will affect those with no place to go. They say the premier's claim that there is enough indoor space available to prevent them from breaking curfew is out of touch.

'They have no idea what goes on the ground,' says Indigenous community group member

Premier François Legault says there are enough shelters and warming centres to help the homeless avoid breaking curfew. Community groups disagree. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Groups working with the city's homeless population are accusing Quebec's premier of being tone-deaf, after he said he expects people living on the street to abide by the province's curfew.

As of Saturday, a four-week overnight curfew comes into effect and Quebecers will need to stay home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., with few exceptions.

Premier François Legault's announcement raised concerns about how curfews would be enforced on the homeless.

"What we would like is for the homeless to also go indoors. There are places set up for them," Legault said during Wednesday's news conference. "Especially with the cold, we would like them to be indoors and there is enough room available."

Last spring, the city of Montreal declared a local state of emergency, giving itself powers that would mainly be used to provide shelter to the homeless during the pandemic.

Since then, several overnight shelters and warming centres have been opened. The city has designated several hotels to provide beds for those with no place to go.  

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Advocates say there's still not enough space for everyone, and as far as they're concerned, Legault's comments were out of touch.

"They have no idea what goes on, on the ground," said Amanda Moniz, a public systems researcher with the Montreal Indigenous Community Network. 

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter, says recent outbreaks among the homeless have caused some shelters to either close or take in fewer people in order to limit the spread of the virus, leading to a reduction in available space.

"When the Legault government says that homeless people are expected to also abide by this curfew, where are they going to go?" she said in an interview with CBC Montreal's Daybreak. "He seems to think there are enough shelters. It's not even close to [being] enough space.

Groups including the Old Brewery Mission and Projets Autochtones du Québec say they've been working with local health authorities to create extra space in yellow, orange and red zones at the old Royal Victoria Hospital.

They say they've recently helped at least 20 people from the Indigenous homeless population get tested for COVID-19 and about 80 per cent of those tests have come back positive. 

Portrait of a woman with dark hair and a beaded choker.
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter, does not want police to issue fines to homeless people for being outdoors during curfew hours. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

'Left to their own devices'

Nakuset is worried that come Saturday, Montreal police will issue tickets to homeless people for being outdoors during curfew hours. Fines for breaking curfew range from $1,000 to $6,000. 

"Everyone is taking a step back inside to self-isolate and those that are most vulnerable are just sort of left to their own devices," she said. "Then they are going to get ticketed, which is really going to be harmful to their self-esteem because they've already been forgotten by society and now they're being penalized."

She's hoping police officers who come across homeless people during the night will try to direct them to a shelter, instead of punishing them. 

James Hughes, president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission says ticketing homeless people is "unwarranted."

"We'll do everything in our power to make sure the curfew is respected, but there will nonetheless be homeless people on the street after eight o'clock," Hughes said. "There has to be an exception to the curfew rule when it comes to homelessness because it is a 24/7 situation." 

With the virus spreading in closed spaces, some people experiencing homelessness choose to avoid shelters for their own safety, says Stéphane Grenier, president of the board of La Piaule, a shelter in Val-d'Or. 

"You don't know what's going to happen to you in the shelter, you don't know who you're going to meet," Grenier said. "They prefer to live on their own, on the street, but we're going to force them to go to that kind of place? So I think it's quite cruel. 

In a statement posted to Facebook, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said the city was in touch with the SPVM and community groups to figure out a way to adjust the upcoming curfew.

She is calling for tolerance for those who are ''among the most vulnerable in our society."

At a news conference today, Geneviève Guilbault, Quebec's public security minister, said police officers are accustomed to dealing with this clientele and they would use their "appreciation and judgment" before handing out a ticket to a homeless person. 

"We don't want to give fines just for the sake of giving fines," she said. "The main goal is to help them find a place in a shelter and help them in general and protect them."

With files from Elias Abboud, Thomas Cobbett Labonté and CBC Montreal's Daybreak