How homeless Montrealers are surviving as the deep freeze drags on

With a prolonged cold snap gripping most of Quebec, the Old Brewery Mission's shuttle bus service is helping Montrealers find warm spots and overnight shelters.

Shuttle service from Old Brewery Mission helps city's most vulnerable find warm spots, overnight shelters

Old Brewery Mission social worker Yolette Jean gets off the shuttle bus to greet the homeless they are picking up to bring to warmer spots. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

Under the bright but ineffective sun, a man clutching his sunglasses waits to be dropped off for the night.

The Lucien-l'Allier Metro station in downtown Montreal is his first choice because it is both "warm and deep," he explains.

After refusing muffins and water from a social worker and cheerfully saying he's good to go, he climbs out of the minibus and quickly enters the subway.

The bitter cold hovering over Montreal — and much of the country — has been especially hazardous for the city's homeless population. The deep freeze is only expected to get worse this weekend.

The Old Brewery Mission is currently running an overnight shuttle bus, which starts its daily tour at 2 p.m. The shuttle offered 4,259 rides last winter.

The bus, filled with garbage bags full of donated clothes, patrols the streets, picking up and dropping off Montreal's most vulnerable to warmer spots and overnight shelters.

An official count in 2015 indicated there are more than 3,000 homeless people in the city.

"We don't stop," said Yolette Jean, a social worker who spends 40 hours a week canvassing the city to help the homeless.

"The hardest time is the winter."

Yahia Dabdy has been driving the Old Brewery Mission's shuttle bus to pick up and drop off homeless people for four winters. While the job can sometimes be difficult, he says he loves it. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

Jean and the bus driver, Yahia Dabdy, have been working together for years. 

The holidays are usually quiet — but not this year.

In such frigid temperatures, Environment Canada warns that frostbite can develop within minutes on exposed skin, especially in windy conditions.

"We're very busy," said Jean.

After dropping off the first man, the pair start their Thursday shift at a women's day shelter downtown that has just closed for the day.

A line of seven women trudge onto the bus, holding bags filled with clothes, food and rolled up cots to sleep on.

With an extreme cold warning in effect and snow-choked streets across the city, the ride between each drop-off spot is long.

While there is some chit chat, many are impatient to reach their next destination. Others who take the bus regularly want to talk to Jean.

"I want you to be silly with me," one woman said to Jean, laughing.

The shuttle bus makes its way through the low-income neighbourhoods of Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles, where women are dropped off at Metro stations and street corners upon request.

After dropping off a woman outside a shelter in the Plateau-Mont-Royal, the second tour begins at the next women's shelter a few blocks away.

With the sun setting at -26 C, Jean remarks they are in for a long night. Montreal's shelters are already packed, but the city has 925 emergency accommodations for homeless men, women and youth.

"In the cold, we absolutely we have to find them a place," she said.
The Old Brewery Mission shuttle bus is stocked with food, blankets and winter clothes to give to the homeless. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

Refusing help

When Dabdy and Jean no longer have scheduled pickups, they start the second leg of their shift, where they help those who never make it to shelters.

The bus travels along arteries and small city streets to Place Emilie-Gamelin and outside the Atwater Metro Station, where regular stops are made.

They plan to canvas the city with the goal of making sure Montrealers living on the streets aren't freezing to death.

"We're prepared," said Dabdy.

Most of the people they encounter don't want to be driven to a shelter or dropped off for a meal at the Old Brewery Mission. Many choose to stay inside a restaurant, in the depths of the Metro or even on the street.
The extreme cold is expected to drag into next week for Montreal. (Radio-Canada)

One man, who is found outside a doorway on St-Denis Street in a thin sleeping bag, refuses help. He repeatedly shakes his head no, but eventually accepts an extra blanket and food.

After Jean helps slip mittens onto the man's pinkish bare hands, he slides back into his sleeping bag, pulling it over his head.

Only police officers are able to force the homeless into a shelter for the night, they explain. Dabdy said he only contacts emergency services when they fear the person may be unconscious or dead.

"I was with another social worker and the person wasn't answering so we had to call 911," he said.
Yolette Jean, a social worker with the Old Brewery Mission, fields calls during her entire shift to help schedule pickups and drop offs of some of the city's most vulnerable to homeless shelters. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

Montreal police, for their part, say they are working alongside social workers on the ground to ensure they provide proper care to the homeless.

While some are reluctant to accept help or go indoors, Cmdr. Jacinthe Boucher said the majority of those living on the streets co-operate with police during dangerously cold weather.

"Our police officers know the homeless people, they know them by name, they know their story and then it's easy to establish links and create a climate of trust to direct them toward the best resources," Boucher said.

Police are asking for anyone who sees a homeless person who may be in danger during the cold weather to call 911.

With files from Radio-Canada's Gravel le matin