Q&A with Serge Lareault, Montreal's new homeless advocate

The City of Montreal has appointed Serge Lareault to be its “protector of the homeless,” Mayor Denis Coderre announced Monday.

Serge Lareault was named as the city’s official ‘homeless protector’ on Monday

Serge Lareault will advise the city on how to help homeless people get off the streets. 'They want to be treated with more dignity,' Lareault says. (CBC)

The City of Montreal has appointed Serge Lareault to be its "protector of the homeless," Mayor Denis Coderre announced Monday.

Lareault is the founder of L'Itinéraire magazine, which he created in 1994 to help raise awareness and money for people living on the streets of Montreal.

This means Lareault will be working on a $36.9 million, five-year plan to get 2,000 people off Montreal's streets.

He spoke to Sue Smith, host of Homerun on CBC Radio One, hours after his new role was announced.
Serge Lareault will be working on a five-year plan to get 2,000 people off Montreal's streets. 8:53

Q: What is your role?

A: I will be a strategic consultant for the mayor. Mayor Coderre, what he wants, is to develop a global vision of homelessness in Montreal.… We have more and more homeless on the street. People are all sick, they can't find all the services they need. So can we reduce the number of homeless on the street? That will be my first big priority for him for the next three years.

I believe that in Montreal we have good services. We have community groups, we have CSSS, but maybe we need to work more together — to have the same objective.

Q: You founded L'Itinéraire magazine back in 1994. How will that experience on the ground help you in this role?

A: First of all, in 1994, everybody said to me, 'It's impossible to work with homeless.' We were the first to start this special business with the homeless. In 20 years, I became also the president of the international network of newspapers — because papers like L'Itinéraire are in 40 countries. So I travelled a lot, I visited many, many cities and spoke to many mayors to understand how they manage the situation. So, after 20 years, I have a good idea about what is good in other cities and what we can import to Montreal.

Q: One of the problems we hear a lot about in the news is the relationship between police and the homeless. What kind of priority will you put on that?

A: The police, last year, started their first plan to have better relations with the homeless. We didn't hear so much about what happened there. So my first priority with them will be to meet with the chief of police and to see where they are at with their plan. Montreal is not so bad when it comes to the police and the homeless, but it's sure that some policemen need more [training] and need to have more compassion… .Homeless people, when you speak with them, they are still very scared when you speak about the police. They have mental [illnesses] and they put them in jail and it's not the good place for them.

Q: What do homeless people tell you about what their priorities are?

A: They want to be treated with more dignity...If we can make links between community groups, the police, the hospitals, if we could work all together, that's what the homeless want because they need many kinds of services. They need housing, they need treatment, they need to be understood.

Q: One part of your job is to make a link between the homeless population and the general population of Montreal. How will that work?

A: We need to [have] more communication [with] the public and more publicity. When you have more and more homeless in a city, the majority of people start to be scared and ask for the police. And remember, some cities like New York or San Francisco…they asked to kick them out of the city. This is not what we want in Montreal. We want people to stay in solidarity with the homeless. But if we don't act, it's sure that the majority of people will be scared.

With files from CBC's Homerun