Montreal needs help dealing with homeless people, drugs and asylum seekers near Berri-UQAM, mayor says

Mayor Valérie Plante says there are too many vulnerable people in Place Émilie-Gamelin, seen here on Feb. 22, 2023. Asylum seekers are housed in a centre at Place Dupuis, on the eastern edge of the park.  (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Mayor Valérie Plante says there are too many vulnerable people in Place Émilie-Gamelin, seen here on Feb. 22, 2023. Asylum seekers are housed in a centre at Place Dupuis, on the eastern edge of the park. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Homelessness and drug addiction abound in Place Émilie-Gamelin, where the city's busiest metro station, Berri-UQAM, is located — and Montreal's mayor is asking the provincial and federal governments to help people in the area.

Valérie Plante said in an interview this week that the area has become a melting pot for "vulnerable" populations — those with mental health problems, people who are homeless and those with substance abuse problems. It is also where the Quebec government houses some asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the country from Roxham Road.

Plante said the mixture of people in the area contributes to the challenge of providing services and ensuring the neighbourhood is safe, clean and welcoming for local businesses.

"Asylum seekers are a vulnerable population, very different from the homeless or people seeking mental health or drug use, which we see in that area," Plante said. "It's very, very different but they do have special needs because they're just arriving in this country and so it adds a lot of pressure, social pressure, in a small area where there's already many challenges."

Plante is asking for the provincial government to contribute more aid, including nurses and social workers, to the area, and for the federal government to ensure that the asylum seekers are taken care of and "on track" as quickly as possible.

Most of the asylum seekers in the area stay at a centre located in Place Dupuis, on the east side of the park, which is run by the Programme régional d'accueil et d'intégration des demandeurs d'asile, or PRAIDA, a program that welcomes new asylum seekers when they first arrive in Quebec.

Lucie Tremblay, the CEO of the centre-west health authority, which runs PRAIDA, said in an interview that the centre in Place Dupuis can house 760 asylum seekers, is practically always full and has been for several years. Asylum seekers remain at the PRAIDA facility for two to three weeks, she said, before they move elsewhere.

But the PRAIDA clients, as Tremblay calls them, are usually busy during the day filling out forms, trying to get established in a new country and don't contribute to the area's problems.

"We're there to support them," she said. "We've been doing that for a very long time and from what we know, we didn't have a lot of problems in this area."

The federal government also rents hotel rooms in the area for other asylum seekers, Tremblay said.

'Not a good area for little babies'

François Raymond, the general manager of Société de Développement Social (SDS), which helps marginalized people in Montreal and in the Émilie Gamelin area, said the presence of asylum seekers around Place Émilie Gamelin area doesn't present a problem in and of itself, but it does contribute to an already challenging environment

"There are more vulnerable people, even if it's not homeless, it still doesn't help," he said. "It's not the best environment for a newcomer to witness. You can observe that there are many more vulnerable people there and having more vulnerable people makes more friction, makes more situations where people are witness to drug consumption."

Raymond said he has seen young asylum-seeking families, some of whom come with children, in the park playing, which worries him.

"Émilie-Gamelin, you know, even though it's a park, there are syringes [on the ground]," he said. "It's not a good area for little babies of newcomers to be playing."

The area has always been a hub for the drug trade, Raymond said, but it got worse during the pandemic with temporary shelter for the homeless in the area and businesses closing.

The influx of asylum seekers is also putting pressure on some systems that are not used to receiving them.

On a given day, Sam Watts, the CEO of the Welcome Hall mission, said his centre could be taking care of dozens of asylum seekers, most of whom have very different needs from the homeless clients the mission is used to caring for.

"We don't have as many spaces to serve people experiencing homelessness and instead we're serving a combination of people experiencing homelessness and people who are seeking asylum," he said.

It is in part, Watts said, due to the surge of asylum seekers that has outpaced available resources and was adding pressure to systems that were designed to take care of the homeless.

The PRAIDA centre in Place Dupuis will shut down in August and move to a new building in Ahuntsic-Cartierville.

A statement from the office of Lionel Carmant, Quebec's social services minister, said the minister was "surprised" that Plante was issuing a call for more resources, saying the CAQ government has already invested $54 million in homelessness in 2022-23 and made more beds available.

Through a spokesperson, Sean Fraser, the federal immigration minister, said only that the facility in Place Dupuis was under the purview of the provincial government.