Survey of Montreal's homeless people brings stories, not just numbers, to forefront

The I Count MTL initiative collects data on Montreal’s homeless people in an effort to sketch a more complete portrait of homelessness in the city.

'After tonight, I won’t look at [homeless people] the same way,' says I Count MTL 2018 volunteer Frank Vela

Victoria and Frank Vela are 2 volunteers for I Count MTL. They spent the night speaking to Montreal's homeless people and filled out surveys. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Downtown Montreal is already dark by the time volunteer groups hit the streets as part of the 2018 edition of I Count MTL, the city's survey of its homeless population.

It's nearly 9 p.m., and with no hockey game to fill the streets, Avenue des Canadiens near the Bell Centre is quiet, with foot-traffic scarce.

Father-and-daughter duo Frank and Victoria Vela patrol the streets, clipboards in hand and surveys at the ready. All night, they and hundreds of other volunteers will be speaking with the city's homeless, to get a better idea of their numbers and needs.

And although she was eager to sign up for the count, Victoria Vela is a little nervous about the night ahead.

"You always hear stories about, 'Don't go out at night, don't go into alleyways. But I'd like to get my own perspective because you never know what [people] are actually going through" said Vela.

Stories of life on the street

Soon enough, the team spots a shy-looking man standing on a corner, across the street from a McDonald's. His facial expression is hard to read, obscured by a thick beard and a grey hoodie pulled over his head. But after a brief chat with the group's leader, Welcome Hall Mission's CEO and executive director Samuel Watts, the man agrees to go along with the survey.

"How long have you been homeless this year?" asked Frank Vela, reading from the survey.

"Um, all year. Well, since 2011," replied the homeless man.

"2011, eh? Seven years," said Samuel Watts, helping the interaction along.

The man nods, and explains that medical issues caused him to lose his home.
This Montreal homeless man agrees to take part in the I Count MTL survey. Simon N. says he has been homeless since 2011. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

As the questions go on, he gives scant details on his life, and gives his name only as "Simon N."

The I Count MTL initiative only asks homeless people for their initials, to ensure that no duplicate surveys are filed. But when he's asked where he spends his nights, Simon becomes animated, explaining that he prefers sleeping outside when it's warm.

"In a shelter, it's less calm. You come in late, and people wake you up in the morning.…I don't want to get up at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m." said the man.

Samuel Watts nods, and lets Simon know which shelters will give him a warm meal, or coffee.

"Oh, Cafe Mission, I do go there because I like the coffee!" smiled Simon, and for a brief moment, the somewhat tense atmosphere in the group is broken, as several people laugh along with him.

More resources needed, homeless say

After a few more questions, Simon is given a Tim Hortons gift card as a thank-you token for his participation, and Frank and Victoria Vela continue walking the streets. Guided by Samuel Watts, the group makes an impromptu stop into the Welcome Hall Mission, to speak to some of its clients.

After a few moments, a smiling man wearing a cap and a grey vest approaches the group, and introduces himself as Jean Meilleur, although he says his friends call him Johnny. Meilleur said he grew up in foster care, has been to jail and has struggled with drugs in the past, but is making changes.

"See, I was dealing with some problems, mentally, but I didn't know [I had them]. So I went to see a doctor, and they're going to help me out," said Meilleur.
Jean Meilleur, left, who lives on the streets, says he’s touched that volunteers like Frank Vela have taken time out of their lives to speak directly with the homeless. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

When he took the survey earlier in the evening, Meilleur said he asked for more mental health services to be made available for the homeless. It's part of the mandate of I Count MTL to ask homeless people what their needs are, which in turn could lead to more funding for services.

But mostly, Meilleur said he's touched that volunteers like Frank and Victoria Vela have taken time out of their lives to speak directly with Montreal's homeless people. Meilleur said he often senses that people on the street are afraid of him and it can be hurtful.

"You see, I'm not that crazy. You can come talk to me, you'll see. It's easy to talk to us [homeless people], we need love too," said Meilleur.

He isn't the only one who is moved. As he continues his walk through downtown Montreal, Frank Vela smiles wide reflecting on his interaction with Meilleur.

"He asked to take a picture with me, arm in arm, and that's gonna go a long way. After tonight, I won't look at [homeless people] the same way anymore, and if everyone had the chance to do that, maybe there lies the solution," said Vela.

Homeless survey not without criticisms

Although it may be touching to some, the I Count MTL initiative has drawn its fair share of criticism.

During the city's first homelessness survey, conducted over several days in March 2015, a total of 3,016 homeless people in the city were counted, 76 per cent of whom were men.

That number was considered low by some advocates, compared to previous estimates of the city's homeless population.

This year, organizers of the count say more emphasis was placed on collecting data from women, the LGBTQ community, and from Indigenous people living on the street.

Volunteers will also continue to collect data on Montreal's homeless people in day shelters on April 25 and 26, in an effort to sketch a more complete portrait of homelessness in the city.