In March 2020, the city of Montreal declared a state of emergency specifically to contain the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless population.
Since then, as soon as winter's icy breath blows into the city, officials launch initiatives such as converting hotels into emergency shelters and an unused hospital into an isolation unit, while boosting a variety of homeless services.
But the CEO and executive director of Welcome Hall Mission says homelessness is something that happens 365 days a year, and these seasonal emergency actions are not leading to long-term solutions at a time when the situation appears to be worsening.
"There are more people coming into homelessness than are going out of it," said Sam Watts.
That's why Montreal homeless organizations are asking the three levels of government for more investment in lasting change — pushing for more resources and social housing to get people into permanent homes.
"Let's stop this notion of, every time the winter comes along, we try to increase the number of spaces available on an emergency basis and instead focus our energy and effort 365 days a year around helping get people back into housing quickly," said Watts.
"Homeless is an all-of-government and all-levels-of-government problem," he added. "It's everyone."
Push for proper support structure
Organizations are also pushing for more resources to be invested into preventing homelessness by having the proper support structure and affordable housing at the ready, said James Hughes, who runs the Old Brewery Mission.
"There are too many people coming in the first place," said Hughes.
This begins by helping people as soon as they come out of correctional services, mental health institutions, child protection or hospitals, he said.
"Ensuring they go directly into housing or other safe places and not into homelessness and face the trauma of homelessness in the first place," Hughes said.
The winter presents specific risks, but services don't necessarily change based on the season, Hughes said, noting it is estimated that about 4,000 people are without a home in Montreal.
Traditionally, financial contributions tend to boost this time of year and certainly warm winter clothing donations are encouraged but, like Watts, he says homelessness is a year-long issue.
3-step plan presented to governments
That's why the major organizations in Montreal teamed up to establish a three-step plan to ensure there are enough rapid-access emergency services and enough support to permanently house some 2,250 people — offering rent supplements and ongoing support as they find their footing.
Hughes said advocates want annualized funding to ensure there is an even better support network in place. Getting people into housing, with the housing market like it is currently, is harder than ever, he said.
That housing market means more emergency services are needed right now, while at the same time, investing more in long-term solutions will eventually curb that need for heavy investment in patchwork solutions, Hughes said.
Meanwhile, staff at Chez Doris, a women's shelter in Montreal, say they're dealing with unprecedented demand.
"We refuse an average of nine women per night as well as maybe 12-18 other women who sleep outside," said executive director Marina Boulos-Winton
The overnight shelter opened this September. Boulos-Winton said workers expected to serve about 300 homeless women a year. But in the first two months, they served more than half that.
A few years ago, about 80 percent of women who sought help from Chez Doris were at risk of homelessness, but now that's the percentage of women who show up who are actually homeless.
She said Chez Doris needs mental health professionals on staff, and while the organization is doing what it can, the number of beds available to women in Montreal needs to be doubled.
The Old Brewery Mission has also been operating at full capacity this fall. The mission sent out a news release in December saying the "1,600 emergency beds available do not meet critical needs of the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Montreal."
Montreal makes investments
The local health agency, the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, community housing organizations and the city have worked together over the past few months to ensure some 1,600 emergency beds are available for the year, said Montreal spokesperson Guillaume Rivest.
Last winter, Montreal suggested the Quebec government put an end to the seasonal approach and instead ensure permanent beds are available all year round, 24 hours a day, throughout the city, Rivest said.
"The 1,623 annual spots planned for this year for emergency accommodation services show that the city has been heard by Quebec," he said.
"With the onset of cold weather, homelessness partners remain on the lookout for any needs that may emerge, such as the increase in poverty in certain sectors or the arrival of people with precarious status in homelessness services."
The city and its partners have the expertise and agility to manage these situations and create more spaces as needed, Rivest said.
The CIUSSS and Montreal, in collaboration with the community sector, have developed a plan that aims to help homeless people get into housing and back on their feet while taking into account their individual realities, needs and aspirations, he added.
"The city provides technical and financial support for several projects, particularly in the area of social cohabitation," Rivest said. "Various teams are currently present in the field to meet homeless people who stay outside during periods of intense cold."