Roger Gobeil spends the afternoon at Place Émilie-Gamelin in downtown Montreal, the day before he moves into his new home. This was the same spot where a stranger approached him two months ago, and asked if he was OK.
Gobeil wasn't OK.
It was the start of Quebec's third wave, and he had just been evicted from his apartment. Sick with emphysema, a lung condition, depressed and unsure of what to do, he wound up outside the Berri-UQAM Metro station — a known gathering place for people experiencing homelessness.
"I was skeptical at first," Gobeil said of his first encounter with the stranger, who was an outreach worker from Projet Logement Montréal. But when the man came back the next day, and seemed sincere in his offer to help, Gobeil accepted.
Gobeil is one of the first participants in Programme Bienvenue, a three-month rapid housing pilot project developed by the Welcome Hall Mission. In collaboration with Projet Logement Montréal and other local charities, the goal is to help 75 people transition into permanent housing by July 1.
The project is "ambitious, but doable," said Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission.
It provides short-term rent supplements, new furniture, a first grocery order and individualized assistance.
"It's not just housing. It's housing with appropriate support," said Watts. "The right pathway is going to be different for each individual. That's the challenge."
Jean-Michel Gélinas, a Programme Bienvenue supervisor, said they're up against the same hurdles facing other Montreal apartment-hunters. There's stiff competition in the rental market along with steep prices.
This past year, the city saw the highest rent increases in nearly two decades.
"Even for me, I don't want to move these days," said Gélinas.
To date, the program's moved 20 people into permanent housing and completed 275 assessments. Watts's aim is to get as many leases signed as possible during the pilot project and convince the provincial government that the program deserves recurrent funding.
The keys are his
Tonino Ruggiero, another client in the program, already has his lease in hand. He's just waiting on a fridge and stove to make the move into his "fantastic" studio apartment in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie.
Ruggiero's been staying in Hotel Place Dupuis for several months. The hotel was converted into emergency housing for 380 people last fall. Before that, Ruggiero was sleeping in bus stops and laundromats after an 18-month pension payment delay forced him outdoors.
He collected cans.
"Luckily, I was making $50 or $60 a day because people are really generous," he said.
Without the support from Programme Bienvenue, Ruggiero admits he wouldn't have had the means to find an apartment.
"In society, you're at the bottom. But with these people, you're on top," he said. "They treat me like a king."
The city has not done a comprehensive count of the number of people currently experiencing homelessness in Montreal during the pandemic. But Mayor Valérie Plante suspects the homeless population — already estimated to be in the thousands before COVID-19 — has doubled.
Housing for all
Brian Goldstone, an anthropologist currently researching a book on the changing nature of homelessness, told CBC News that "housing-first models" like this pilot project are not only more humane by keeping people off the street longer, but are also more cost-effective than emergency services.
"The problem," he said, "is that the number of people able to access the housing-first model is an incredibly slim population."
Goldstone says housing programs are more likely to serve those who meet certain criteria, such as sobriety or having a job.
"Housing was treated as a reward," he said.
But the housing-first model swings the pendulum the other way. The extremely vulnerable, in the throes of severe mental illness or addiction, for example, are the most likely to get housed.
Goldstone wants housing to be seen as a human right for people on either side of the pendulum, and in between — people living in cars, for example.
With some emergency support for those experiencing homelessness ending as the third wave subsides, Watts agrees that what's most needed are services that prevent people from spending long periods of time on the street.
A fresh start
Gobeil, now in his new home, is soon undergoing lung surgery.
He's in the same building as his clinic, and around the corner from a hospital and pharmacy.
He was surprised to see that help was available — and that it came to him. "I guess I was sitting at the right place at the right time," he said.
When the counsellor took out his phone so he and Gobeil could check how many steps he'd be from the Metro, right then he knew — "I couldn't have found an apartment without his help."
"These people saved my life. Thank God for that."