Montreal's alternative to policing most vulnerable gets boost after over 10,000 interventions

Rosalie, left, and Mélissa respond to calls from police and community organizations to intervene in conflicts and other issues vulnerable people face on the streets of Montreal. (Charles Contant/CBC - image credit)
Rosalie, left, and Mélissa respond to calls from police and community organizations to intervene in conflicts and other issues vulnerable people face on the streets of Montreal. (Charles Contant/CBC - image credit)

Mélissa loves helping people.

"I think it's within my nature to help people," she said. "I have been doing it since I was young."

CBC has agreed not to use Mélissa's last name as she is part of Montreal's Équipe mobile de médiation et d'intervention sociale (EMMIS) — a team of intervention workers who patrol the city's streets, responding to conflicts or other issues people in precarious living situations may experience.

It started as a pilot project in September 2021 with 12 civilian social workers who formed a "mobile mediation and social response team" that, along with patrolling on their own, can be called to action by Montreal police or community organizations.

The team offers a range of services, such as conflict resolution and referring people to community resources. They may, for example, help defuse a dispute between a merchant and people who are loitering out front.

They strive to de-escalate tense situations rather than relying on police intervention. They work with people struggling with mental illness, addiction or homelessness — establishing a strong presence in areas populated by the city's most vulnerable and helping everybody feel safer.

The intervention team is available 15 hours a day from 9 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. It has been operating in the boroughs of Ville-Marie and Sud-Ouest.

But Montreal officials are now increasing the program's reach to Plateau-Mont-Royal and Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

Thousands of interventions

In less than a year and a half, the service has already carried out more than 10,000 interventions. Its success prompted the city to grant it $2.6 million — doubling its workforce to serve the two new boroughs.

"They do a lot of prevention," said Alain Vaillancourt, head of public security on Montreal's executive committee.

"They make regular rounds in Ville-Marie to visit people on the ground, which will avoid potential conflicts with citizens and businesses as well. Merchants love EMMIS because they are called upon to intervene with itinerant people on commercial streets to avoid problems with customers."

Charles Contant/CBC
Charles Contant/CBC

While city officials tout the program as a success, Mélissa gets to follow through with her own life mission.

"I think we all come from different paths of life, and mine brought me to where I am today," she said, while driving around downtown on patrol.

"I know people who have dealt with family issues, with drug issues, homelessness. And I think that I was put on earth to help these people."

Responding to hotspots

François Raymond, head of the Société de développement social, an organization that works to find solutions to homelessness, said about once a week an intervention can get out of hand and police need to be called. That's why it is important for team members to be well trained and ready to respond to difficult situations.

"We can get five to 10 calls a day," he said. "But between the calls, our team is not waiting. They are out on the territory, going to the hotspots."


Rosalie, also an intervention worker with EMMIS, says they are trained to help people who are overdosing, administering naloxone.

The first time she responded to an overdose was scary, she said. She was out patrolling with her colleague when they noticed someone slumped in a camping chair, nearly falling out.

They reacted quickly, she said. Her colleague provided medical aid while she called 911 for help. This kinds of scenario can be stressful, she said, but "it depends on the situation."

"For example, if it is someone we know, or someone we are used to seeing, it can affect us more," Rosalie said.

She said they have to remain calm and work as a team. But overall, she feels as though the team is bringing happiness to the community.