What it's like living in Montreal's tent city: 'Freedom. That's what we have'
As the pandemic worsens Canada’s homelessness crisis, Michel Groulx is opting to live outdoors
UPDATE: Since publication of this story, the Notre-Dame encampment has been dismantled. The Montreal fire department issued an eviction order on Dec. 6 citing safety concerns raised by a fire the previous day. Police moved campers out on Dec. 7. The strip of grassland where the encampment was located is now deserted.
Michel Groulx had planned on spending the winter in a camper trailer near the encampment, but following the eviction, he hopes to park it at a nearby shelter. He thinks he will be allowed to plug it in to their electricity, so is hopeful he'll have a decent place to live for the winter.
Original story runs below
Michel Groulx, who is known around the campground as Pitbull or The Watchdog, walks briskly past tents and generators, stopping to pet a dog tethered outside a tent. It's mid-November and the temperature has been dropping below freezing at night, which is why Groulx is worried about the older campers.
"I'm pretty scared. I don't want to find them dead in their tents," he said.
Groulx, 51, is one of many who formed an improvised encampment in Montreal this year. More than a hundred tents appeared over the summer in the city's east end, in a stretch of park parallel to a busy section of Notre-Dame Street.
Some of the campers were homeless for the first time, while others had been staying in shelters but decided it would be safer sleeping outside when the pandemic hit.
Groulx, who set up his tent in July, describes himself as camp security. He spent time in the military, and uses the skills he learned there to break up fights and keep his community safe. At night he patrols the camp to make sure residents are warm and safe.
"We are a big family here," Groulx said. "We're all taking care of each other."
He keeps busy around the campground, raking leaves, tidying up garbage left behind, helping friends tie tarps and making preparations for the winter.
Groulx, who has lived in shelters before, said he prefers it at the camp.
"Freedom. That's what we have," he said.
Homelessness increased in Canada during pandemic
Such a large, visible tent city is unprecedented for Montreal, although similar encampments have popped up in Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton.
Across Canada, there has been an increase in people experiencing homelessness, according to Sam Watts, the CEO of the Montreal Welcome Hall Mission.
"There are new people coming into the experience of homelessness," Watts said. "You can draw a direct line that they were living a little precariously, living paycheque to paycheque, and then COVID hit."
According to the 2016 report The State of Homelessness in Canada, at least 235,000 Candians experience homelessness every year. Surveys from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness show that COVID-19 is only exacerbating the issue.
However, Watts said it's difficult to put a hard number on how many more people are without a permanent home because many live on the fringes; some are squatters, others couch surf and stay with friends. Those populations are often invisible, and don't get counted.
"Homelessness is a complex social problem. One story is never representative of the 150 people who might have passed through that camp over time or over the summer," he said.
In Groulx's case, before moving to the camp he had been working and living in Gatineau, Que., as a drywall taper.
He lost his job and apartment in February, came to Montreal, and spent a few months living in shelters. After a while, Groulx said he got tired of the rules, of having to line up outside at night to wait for a bed, of having to leave every morning and drag all of his belongings with him.
That's when he decided to join the encampment.
When he moved in during the summer, there was a festive atmosphere. But as fall progressed, the mood shifted.
"It's pretty hard these days, because it's getting cold in the morning and it's getting cold at night." he said.
He has two tents — one is his storage area, where he keeps extra clothing and necessities. The other one is where he sleeps at night. A generator gives him enough electricity to keep warm, and he sleeps on a wooden futon frame, which keeps him off of the cold ground.
"It's like an apartment, a little bachelor," Groulx said.
Opposite his tent, on a sidestreet, is a carport, under which Groulx built a kitchen. It's shared by the tent community; there are shelves lined with cans of food, coffee and dry goods.
Community organizations often stop by with donations, including generators, gas money, warm clothes and food. One volunteer even found a way to install wireless internet.
Living in a tent in the Notre-Dame Campground, as residents have named it, is not the same as being homeless, according to Groulx. He compares it to living in a trailer park.
"Here we have a tent. When it rains, it doesn't rain on your head. When you live in a back alley, this is not home for you," he said.
In August, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante gave campers a deadline to leave. That date arrived and passed, and few campers left. The city was hesitant to use force, and so the camp remained.
Groulx said they've maintained a good relationship with police, who stop by regularly to check in.
"We don't tolerate any violent stuff on the territory. [This] guy was fighting, fighting all the time. So we told him to leave," he said.
The City of Montreal said the fire department continues to visit the camp regularly in order to ensure the people sleeping there are safe.
Saturday morning there was a fire in the encampment on that destroyed a tent. No one was injured, but the city said the situation is worrisome, and could have had grave consequences.
A spokesman for the city said they're working to get everyone to leave the encampment voluntarily and go to shelters. After Saturday's fire they said they'll have to intensify those efforts.
While for the most part, Groulx said the neighbourhood has been welcoming to the campers, occasionally people will scream at them to get a job.
"How can we get a job? How can we get a job without a place?" Groulx said, adding that without a fixed address, getting hired can be difficult.
Groulx, whose mom died when he was young, grew up in the foster system. He can't read or write, which also makes it tough to find a job.
In the 1990s, Groulx said he joined the Canadian Armed Forces, but it wasn't what he expected.
"I wanted to be a rescuer, not to shoot people," he said. He said he served in the Middle East as a paramedic, where he would patch up wounds and sometimes bag bodies.
As a veteran, Groulx is entitled to a pension, but said he is still too young to retire.
Extra emergency beds don't solve homelessness
In October, the province of Quebec responded to concerns of the encampment by announcing additional emergency resources in Montreal, including an extra 380 beds at the Place Dupuis Hotel.
The Welcome Hall Mission was put in charge of managing the hotel beds. Watts estimates as many as 40 people from the camp are now staying at the hotel.
Still, many like Groulx don't plan on budging.
"They gave us conditions. We don't need conditions," Groulx said, explaining that even at the hotel, he would still have to leave every morning and take his belongings with him. "We want our own place to live, like an apartment."
Watts hopes the pandemic will propel governments to do more. In the meantime, he said staying in a tent is not the answer.
Still, Groulx remains determined. He recently got a camper trailer, which he plans on fixing up and moving into before the worst of the winter hits.
He said he hopes that anyone who hears his story remembers one thing:
"Everything you have in life — don't take it for granted."
About the producer
Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who has reported for The National, World Report, The Globe and Mail and CBC Montreal. Her work focuses on human rights issues and wildlife conservation, though she has covered topics ranging from election campaigns to natural disasters. www.jaelabernstien.com.