Royal Vic winter overflow shelter for homeless opens earlier, for longer — but what comes next?

Most of Montreal’s emergency shelters have been near or at capacity since the summer months, and the situation isn’t getting any easier now that cold weather is gripping the city earlier than most years.

'The solution is to get people into housing, not to build more shelters,' says CEO of Welcome Hall Mission

When full, permanent shelters will again shuttle clients to Montreal's old Royal Victoria Hospital where they will be offered a bed, food and psychosocial support starting Dec. 2. (Charles Contant/CBC)

The thick blanket of snow covering Montreal has arrived earlier than usual, and while most people have a safe, warm place to spend the night, there are at least 3,000 who do not.

Most of Montreal's emergency shelters for the homeless have been near or at capacity since the summer ended, and the situation isn't getting any easier now that cold weather is gripping the city.

There aren't always enough temporary beds to go around, forcing homeless Montrealers to wait out the night in warming stations provided by various organizations.

Luckily, an overflow shelter at the former Royal Victoria Hospital will re-open for the winter, but despite the Remembrance Day snowstorm, it won't be available earlier than planned, as organizers are still getting it ready. 

The overflow shelter will open Dec. 2, and it will operate for the next two winters in partnership with health authorities, homeless organizations, the SPCA and Montreal police. 

The 150-bed shelter will have almost double the number of beds available during last year's pilot project.

This year, there will be real mattresses in place of cots, a breakfast service and a floor for women only. There will also be goods and services adapted to women's needs, including feminine hygiene products, earlier arrival and departure times, and other extra security measures.

The ultimate goal, however, is to offer an option to staying in an emergency shelter, said Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, which manages the Royal Victoria Hospital project.

"Our goal is to put an end to chronic homelessness in Montreal," said Watts.

'Where were you last night?'

Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, says the ultimate goal is to end chronic homelessness in Montreal by providing services beyond emergency shelters. (CBC)

Shelters are key to ensuring people don't spend the night out in the cold, Watts said, but they're not a solution.

"The solution is to get people into housing, not to build more shelters or supply more shelter beds," he said.

When clients arrive, shuttled to the old Royal Vic from one of the permanent shelters, Watts said, "One of the first questions that we ask is, 'Where were you last night?'" 

"We want to understand their story. We want to understand why they find themselves in this situation. We also want to divert them, if we can."

Trained staff will help connect clients to family and friends, helping them find housing solutions apart from shelters, if those options exist.

People can get stuck in the cycle of seeing shelters as home, Watts said, and that's something organizers don't want. The right path needs to be found for each individual, he said, to help them on their journey out of homelessness.

Private support needed

Homelessness is a complex social problem that needs support not just from various levels of government, but from private donors, as well, Watts said.

The overflow shelter will cost about $400,000 to run each winter. Welcome Home Mission and other partners are relying on federal funding that's funnelled through the province, plus a small contribution from Montreal.

Last year, the hospital was equipped with 80 cots. This winter, 150 mattresses will be available, as will breakfast and other services. (CBC)

But Watts said private donations from individuals and businesses remain a crucial pillar of support in the effort to end chronic homelessness.

"Even for our basic services that we offer at Welcome Hall Mission, it's not fully funded by the government. It's largely funded by private donors," he said.

7 nights a week until April 15

The Royal Victoria overflow shelter will run every night from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., until April 15.

Showers are provided, pet services are available, and almost nobody is turned away.

People do have to agree to follow the shelter's behaviour code. Even those who are intoxicated are accepted, as long as their intoxication levels are not too severe, and they are not violent.

The shelter operated as a pilot project last year. It ran for 90 days, starting Jan. 15, chalking up 7,000 stays, including overnight visits from 1,402 men, 173 women and 10 people who identify as transgender, aged 18 to 85.


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