Montreal police aim to take a more 'human' approach with city's homeless

Even though the Urban Brigade has been around since 2015, it now has a new focus: helping the population's most vulnerable people.

SPVM's Urban Brigade has been around since 2015, but has a new focus

The Montreal Police's Urban Brigade has been around since 2015, and is made up of two dozen officers. (Radio-canada)

On de la Montagne Street in downtown Montreal, two police officers with the SPVM's Urban Brigade speak with a group of homeless people who've made a makeshift camp in an empty lot.

The lot will soon become a construction site, but these officers aren't there to kick the homeless people out. Not yet, anyway.

"Our approach consists of going to meet with these people and make a first contact, to introduce ourselves," said Sgt. Jolyanne Bonneau. "We check to see if they need water, food, whatever it is." 

Bonneau is one of about two dozen officers — 20 on bikes and two on foot — who make up the brigade.

Although the Urban Brigade has been around since 2015, it has a new focus: helping out some of the city's most vulnerable people.

The team deals with people who are in crisis or struggling with substance abuse issues regularly. (CBC)

Bonneau says the next step is to link up with community services and outreach workers who can help explain to the people living in the lot that they'll have to relocate due to construction.

The brigade's officers try to make it clear that they aren't necessarily there to make arrests or give out tickets, but to build trust with the community, which doesn't happen overnight.

Since the start of this summer, the Urban Brigade has had a new mandate. SPVM Commander Martine Dubuc is the brains behind the reinvention.

"The Operational Response is a lot more human than before," she said.

SPVM Commander Martine Dubuc, centre, is the brains behind the brigade's reinvention. (CBC)

Dubuc said the team deals with a lot of people who are in crisis or who are dealing with substance abuse issues.

Now, they are trying to "come up with a common solution to help them find resources that will respond to their needs," she said.

Advocates for the homeless react

Pierre Gaudreau, executive director of the homeless help network RAPSIM, said that the Urban Brigade has been criticized in the past for its interventions.

"Too often, homeless people and concerned parties have told us that interventions have been abusive," he said, citing instances where officers emptied beer cans and handed out tickets to people living on the street.

"We'll see how things go this summer," he said.

David Chapman, former acting director at the Open Door, told CBC that "the history between the homeless and the police is certainly not a positive one," but that Montreal police are moving in the right direction.

The Urban Brigade was established in 2015 but has faced criticism about the nature of its interventions. (CBC)

"The question will be: over time, how many officers will really commit to the process, will really commit to taking an interest, for example, to the history of Indigenous trauma in this country and why this is such an overrepresentation of Indigenous homeless?"

Mélissa Bellerose, communications director at the Old Brewery Mission, agreed, saying training for frontline officers is crucial. 

"One training a year isn't enough," she said. "All police officers have to be trained the same way in order for them to be sensitized."

With files from Radio-Canada's Florence Ngué-No, CBC's Sarah Leavitt