Plight of Indigenous homeless population a 'humanitarian crisis,' Montreal ombudsman says

·3 min read
Fencing blocks access to a vacant lot that has been a gathering place on Parc Avenue in Montreal's Milton Park neighbourhood. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Fencing blocks access to a vacant lot that has been a gathering place on Parc Avenue in Montreal's Milton Park neighbourhood. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)

Faced with a "humanitarian crisis" in one of its central neighbourhoods, Montreal needs to "walk the talk" and revamp its approach to tackling homelessness, according to the city's ombudsman.

In a report released Wednesday, Ombudsman Nadine Mailloux highlighted the need for the city and the province to do more to tackle Indigenous homelessness in the Milton Park neighbourhood in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.

She described the city's strategy and efforts to reduce homelessness as "seasonal" and "temporary" and said more needs to be done to provide permanent solutions to deal with "real, homeless people suffering intolerable human distress."

"It is essential not to manage this situation by simply ticking the boxes of a plan," wrote Mailloux. "We must act in a premeditated way and make sure that planned measures can produce concrete results."

Her investigation was prompted by complaints from residents in the area who say they are worried about the safety of their neighbours as well as the homeless people themselves, many of whom are Inuit.

The residents said Milton Park is plagued by physical and sexual assaults, prostitution, and drug and alcohol consumption. They told the ombudsman those problems are due to authorities not managing the situation properly.

The ombudsman's report mentions the emergency powers the city held for much of the pandemic and how those powers made it easier for authorities to set up shelters. According to Mailloux, it should not have taken a public health emergency for the city to acquire those powers.

"It is essential to ensure that, even outside the winter measures or the public health state of emergency, the city can exercise its jurisdiction to establish shelters, which it seems unable to do at present," Mailloux wrote.

She issued five recommendations, including asking the city to be more flexible when it comes to applying bylaws, to make it easier for organizations to set up shelters and provide other resources for homeless people.

She recommends a preventive approach to homelessness, which would include "reception and support programs for Inuit persons who arrive in Montreal."

She's also calling for the city to change how it funds non-profit organizations. Mailloux said temporary funding for projects makes it difficult for groups to offer quality services and retain staff.

Damage already done, advocate says

Nakuset, the director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, hopes the report will lead to concrete changes. But as far as she's concerned, inaction has already cost lives.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

She points to the deaths of two Indigenous people in the area in the last two years, including Raphael Napa André, an Innu man whose body was found in January 2021, just steps away from a shelter in Milton Park. Public health officials had ordered that the shelter be closed overnight during the province's first pandemic curfew.

"I think the recommendations are about two years too late," said Nakuset.

At a news conference Wednesday, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she's in favour of ditching temporary and seasonal strategies but added she needs the provincial government's help.

A spokesperson for Ian Lafrenière, Quebec's Indigenous affairs minister, listed several projects the province has funded, including a partnership with Projets Autochtones du Québec (PAQ) to create 18 housing units.

"We have to give resources to organizations to offer adapted services," the spokesperson said. "That's exactly what we are doing and what we will continue to do.

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