Community groups team up to provide supplies to Montreal's homeless encampments

More than a dozen organizations will be working together this winter to raise money to buy equipment such as tents, sleeping bags and insulated blankets so those living outside will have what's necessary to survive Montreal’s harsh weather.

Many homeless people worry shelters will be dangerous as COVID-19 cases surge in city

There are several homeless encampments around Montreal, but the one along Notre-Dame Street in the city's east end is particularly large. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

With winter fast approaching, people living in homeless encampments around Montreal are getting ready to face the cold, and community groups are teaming up to help.

A coalition has come together to raise money to buy essential supplies for those who choose to live outside rather than take what they see as the risk of moving to a shelter during a pandemic.

"We don't want people out there this winter, but we have to respect the decision of those campers," said Martin Pagé of Dopamine, an organization that offers support to drug users.

"And we're going to do everything that we can so that those people can stay safe."

Dopamine is one of more than a dozen organizations that will be working together this winter to raise money for equipment such as tents, sleeping bags and insulated blankets so that those living outside will have what's necessary to survive Montreal's harsh weather.

Outreach workers will distribute the supplies and will also offer other assistance, with the ultimate goal being to help people find real homes.

Some living in the encampment on Notre-Dame Street say they lost their jobs to the pandemic, and that in turn cost them their home. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

In a statement released earlier this week, the team of organizations calls itself the #LeaveNoOneBehind collective and says it has received financing from Centraide of Greater Montreal. 

The collective also plans to raise funds online, aiming to raise at least $10,000.

Donating to the cause sends a strong message to those living in tents, camps and homeless shelters, the statements says, as these people need all the help they can get.

Getting ready for winter

Among those who could probably use a hand is Jacques Brochu, though he has been busy setting up an efficient campsite on the green space along Notre-Dame Street in the city's east end — a green space that went from housing a handful of campers to dozens over the summer.

Montreal ordered the encampment vacated back in late August, but those living on the stretch of grass alongside the busy street aren't moving. 

Brochu has a camp stove for cooking meals, a line for drying clothes, buckets for collecting rain and plenty of tarps.

"We're gonna try to do our best doing our tarp job," he said. "A group of 10 here, I can do myself the kitchen for our group. I can easily manage that."

The encampment along Notre-Dame wasn't the only one to pop up after the city greenlit tenting in parks late last spring, when COVID-19 cases were surging. 

People like Brochu prefer not to sleep in shelters where, even with sanitary measures in place, sharing indoor airspace with strangers — means an increased risk of catching COVID-19.

Jacques Brochu has put together a campsite on a small patch of grass along Notre-Dame Street. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Montreal has been trying to help homeless people throughout the pandemic, offering a range of outdoor services in the spring and early summer. 

Those efforts have been ramped up this fall as officials encouraged tenters to move indoors..

"We are continuing work in the field with the CIUSSS de l'Est and community organizations to support and accompany campers," said Catherine Cadotte, a city spokesperson.

"Camps are not a sustainable or safe solution for people experiencing homelessness, especially as the cold approaches. This is why we are actively working with the health network to open new emergency accommodation sites for the winter."

Pushing for more social housing

But everything from tents to homeless shelters have long been seen as a short-term goal to cover urgent needs. Many organizations are pushing for more social housing as a long-term solution to homelessness.

Last month, Quebec and Canada reached a tentative deal for $1.4 billion in social-housing funding for the province.

Old Brewery Mission president and CEO James Hughes says Montreal has an opportunity to innovate and provide social housing to solve homelessness. (CBC)

The Old Brewery Mission's president and CEO, James Hughes, hopes that deal will lead to thousands of new units.

"Imagine if Montreal could become one of the first cities ever of our size to end chronic homelessness," he said. 

Hughes said he hopes the collective of organizations working to help the campers will also be searching for long-term solutions, while offering the support people need to get off the streets and into a home.

"No one wants to stay in a camp or in a shelter all their lives," Hughes said.

"They need social housing. Affordable housing. Decent housing. That's the dream for all of us."

Based on a report by Matt D'Amours

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