Life after curfew for Montreal's homeless means lineups, fear of fines and few empty beds

·6 min read
Life after curfew for Montreal's homeless means lineups, fear of fines and few empty beds

It's well past 8 p.m., and despite the provincial curfew for COVID-19, there is still a lineup outside Hotel Place Dupuis, one of the Montreal hotels offering beds for homeless people during the pandemic.

Maude Viau is familiar with the sight.

The 23-year-old is a psychosocial worker on the shuttle service for the Old Brewery Mission, which provides help to people experiencing homelessness in the city. It's her job to check the streets of Montreal between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., asking people if they have a place to stay for the night and if they have enough to eat.

If needed, Viau offers them a seat on the bus and a driver takes them to a shelter or supervised injection centres.

CBC News accompanied Viau on her shuttle, a few days before the death of Raphaël André, a homeless Innu man whose body was discovered Jan. 17 in a portable toilet in the city's Plateau neighbourhood, only steps from the Open Door shelter.

The shelter used to be open 24 hours a day, but that changed after a COVID-19 outbreak and a plumbing issue forced the shelter to close. When it was reopened in the new year, it was not allowed to stay open overnight – even with the 8 p.m. curfew, which came into effect Jan. 9. as part of new measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Despite calls to exempt homeless people from the curfew and fines up to $6,000, the province has refused, even as pandemic restrictions make it harder for those living outside to find a bed for the night.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Hoping for a place to stay

Viau walks around Place Dupuis, following the long line of people waiting outside. Fortunately, it's warmer than usual for January, with a temperature of about -1 C.

She's looking for people who want to go to CACTUS, one of Montreal's supervised injection sites. Speaking with them one by one, she asks them how they're doing and if they need a ride. She knows many of them by name.

Most of the people turn her down. They are hoping for a place to spend the wintry night.

Employees inside the hotel, Viau says, are trying to help them as fast as they can, but they have to enter in the information of each arrival.

Even though those in the line are trying to get into a shelter, they are technically breaking the province's curfew.

"They're trying to follow the rules, but we cannot go faster than we go," Viau said.

Outside the hotel, some people told CBC News they are thinking about other options for where to go, afraid they won't find a place at the shelter.

Others say the curfew and the fines simply do not make sense, when people living on the streets don't always have an inside option.

Mark Myer, who says he became homeless a few months ago after a health issue, can't make sense of the government's decision. He says the fines, which start at $1,000 and can be as much as $6,000, would be impossible for someone like him to pay.

"Set an example with the right people, homeless people are not going to be able to pay them anyway," said Myer, who found a bed that night at Old Brewery Mission.

WATCH | Police handed out dozens of fines on the first night of Quebec's curfew:

Quebec Premier François Legault has said he will not make an exception for homeless people, saying it could encourage people to "pretend" to be homeless.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante had called on the premier to do so, saying the curfew has added unnecessary stress on people who are homeless and those who work with them.

If not a bed, then at least a chair

Viau returns to the shuttle alone. She's headed to Bonaventure metro station in downtown Montreal now. She knows there will be people taking refuge there, and wants to offer them a ride to a shelter.

On her way, she calls different shelters to see if there is room – if not a bed, then at least a chair at a warm place – but is told, again and again, that there is no space.

Because of the pandemic, Viau and other street workers say, shelters can't be filled in the same way as they were before and some centres, like the Open Door, have been forced to close temporarily after an outbreak.

Shelters have also had to reduce the number of beds since the start of the pandemic to make sure social distancing is possible. The Old Brewery Mission, for example, had more than 280 beds before the pandemic, but now has only 150.

"Before, there was not a place for everybody," Viau said.

"So imagine, with this, and 50 per cent less than what we usually have."

WATCH | A look at nearly empty streets in Montreal under COVID-19 curfew:

The city has tried to make more space. Along with Hotel Place Dupuis, the city opened Hotel Universel to those experiencing homelessness. Authorities also expanded the number of beds available at the old Royal Victoria Hospital to homeless people with COVID-19, and are planning to convert an arena near the Olympic Stadium into a temporary homeless shelter, as well.

Finally, she manages to secure two spots in shelters, but some nights it's impossible, says Viau.

Earlier the same week, by just after 7 p.m., there was no place to put anybody, she says, and they had to put mattresses on the floors of a shelter in Montréal-Nord, three and a half hours' walk away from downtown Montreal.

But putting people based downtown into shelters far from their neighbourhood is not ideal, Viau says, because it displaces vulnerable people from the resources they normally use.

'I'm sure people are hiding'

Viau finds six people at Bonaventure station, but only one wants to come on board — with some hesitation.

"A lot of people don't want to go to the shelter," she said. "They just find another solution, far from the eyes of everybody, far from the tickets. I think it's more dangerous.

"I'm sure people are hiding.... Where, we don't know."

Jennifer Yoon/CBC
Jennifer Yoon/CBC

By 9:30 p.m., the shuttle is at the Open Door. The people getting on the bus are exhausted.

"It's hard for us. We have no door, like people have a door. It's hard for us," said one woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Sarah.

Another man, who asked to be identified only as Thierry, said that although the weather is mild, he is worried about when it gets colder and he has nowhere to go, especially given the shelters are accepting fewer people due to the pandemic.

"That means more people stay outside, so people are freezing outside."