More resources needed for people forced out of homeless encampments in Quebec City, experts say

Every year, Quebec City’s police force dismantles homeless encampments. But a lack of resources is making it harder for community organizations to help those displaced from their makeshift homes to find somewhere else to stay.

About 20 encampments dismantled every year, visible homelessness on the rise

There has been an increase in visible homelessness in Quebec City during the pandemic, according to experts Éric Boulay and Benoît Côté. (Dominic Martel/Radio-Canada)

Every year, Quebec City's police force dismantles homeless encampments. Just this week, one was taken down near the Saint-Charles River.

These operations typically take place in collaboration with community organizations who help those displaced from their makeshift homes find somewhere else to stay, but a lack of resources is making it harder to assist them.

"Since 2019 we've observed more and more incidents of what we call visible homelessness: sleeping bags outside, people who sleep outside," said Éric Boulay, the general manager of the Lauberivière shelter, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

But even with a new building that has some 100 beds, the Lauberivière shelter is unable to keep up with the demand. Some nights, it has to turn people away because there isn't enough space.

"It's always hard, imagine for the workers at night, to tell people 'I'm full, I don't have a space for you tonight,'" said Boulay.

Éric Boulay, general manager of the Quebec City shelter Lauberivière, said his staff have had to turn people looking for a place to sleep away because they didn't have any space left. (Radio-Canada)

Boulay said more resources and funding are needed for some 40 community organizations in Quebec City that work to assist those experiencing homelessness.

"It's not just adding beds for winter," he said. "We need a global vision for prevention, street workers, support after people leave shelters, and support before people go to shelters."

Police working with community organizations

The Service de Police de la Ville de Québec (SPVQ) dismantled about 20 camps last year, a trend that seems to be continuing this year, according to spokesperson David Pelletier.

Pelletier said in an email that the police are forced to dismantle the camps because the city of Quebec can't allow them to stay in place.

"It's not a sustainable or safe solution for people experiencing homelessness, especially with regard to the risk of fire," he said.

Quebec City's police force recently dismantled a homeless encampment near the Saint-Charles River in Quebec City. (Radio-Canada)

Pelletier said police officers work with community partners when they do these interventions, and their priority is to ensure the well-being of the person whose encampment is being dismantled.

One of these partners is the Programme d'encadrement clinique et d'hébergement (PECH), a non-profit organization that offers assistance to people experiencing homelessness.

It has been working with the police for about 20 years, according to its director general Benoît Côté.

Part of the issue, Côté said, is that there is a lack of political will at all levels of government to truly tackle homelessness.

"There doesn't seem to be a clear political will to orient ourselves toward a decrease of homelessness in the big cities in Quebec," he said. "The resources that we are putting in place to accompany people are not sufficient."

It's not clear how many people are currently experiencing homelessness in the city, but Côté said three years ago, data showed there were about 550.

The shelter Lauberivière, located in Quebec City's Saint-Roch neighbourhood, can welcome some 100 people every night. (Guillaume Croteau-Langevin/Radio-Canada)

Like Boulay, Côté said the solution is more complex than simply adding more beds to a shelter, even though he said that is also needed.

"The first thing to get people out of the streets is to offer them subsidized housing," he said. 

He noted that while emergency shelters do offer a place to sleep, those who use the services are forced to return to the street and the cold first thing in the morning.

There is also the fact that some people who live in makeshift camps don't like going to shelters, he said.

New mayor has vowed to eradicate homelessness

Côté said he is hopeful things might change with Quebec City's new mayor, Bruno Marchand, who made reaching "zero homelessness" one of his campaign priorities.

Marchand told Radio-Canada he felt "sadness, and a lot, a lot of empathy," for those experiencing homelessness.

But he said he thinks eradicating homelessness is doable if the key players are willing to work together and be ambitious about the results they want to achieve.

With files from Radio-Canada