Homeless people may be exempt from Quebec's curfew, but advocates say the fight's far from over

·3 min read

Jean-Marc Bonhomme knows all too well what it's like to be homeless in Montreal in the middle of the winter, having once lost part of a toe to the cold because shelters were full and he had no place to stay.

He's now among those relieved that a Quebec Superior Court judge has made homeless people exempt from the province's curfew, but he says it doesn't fix the underlying problem.

Bonhomme says there just isn't enough emergency shelter space available, despite the publicly funded effort to add more beds during the pandemic.

"You got Place Dupuis, and now there's two other shelters, but that's not enough," he said, noting missions have reduced capacity due to physical distancing or were forced to suspend operations because of an outbreak.

Now Bonhomme has a place to stay, but he regularly visits Cabot Square, a popular gathering place for homeless people, and he frequents the nearby day centre, Resilience Montreal.

Premier François Legault has claimed there is plenty of shelter space available in Montreal. That just shows how little the premier understands what it's like to be homeless, Bonhomme said.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," he said. "Him, he's never been homeless."

Government accepts judge's order

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Lionel Carmant, the province's junior health minister, said the government will not appeal Tuesday's court ruling.

In that ruling, Judge Chantal Masse found the "measure as worded would not apply" to homeless people, since they have no place to go at night.

Since Jan. 9, Quebec residents have only been allowed outside between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. for essential travel, a measure meant to help control the spread of COVID-19. During curfew hours, they are supposed to stay in their homes or on their property.

The curfew was meant to last a month, until Feb. 8. Masse's safeguard order suspends the curfew for homeless people until Feb. 5.

As late as last week, Legault refused to make an exception for homeless people.

Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press
Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press

Calls for leniency intensified after Raphaël André, a 51-year-old Innu man, was found dead in Montreal but Legault said he was concerned an official exemption could encourage people to "pretend" to be homeless.

Leagault's hard-set stance on the issue was heavily criticized by advocates for homeless people. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante called for the curfew to be scaled back.

On Wednesday, she said the ruling was a "relief" for the homeless population and those who work with them.

"Ultimately you cannot ask someone without a roof to go under a roof at a specific time," she said.

More help needed, advocates say

While the controversy over the curfew has been settled for now, Bonhomme is far from the only one saying more help is needed for Montreal's homeless population.

David Chapman, a project co-ordinator at Resilience Montreal, said clients dealing with a range of health problems, from mental illness to addiction, are streaming in, asking for food, clothing and warmth.

They are offered all those things, and directed to further resources, but still, others are hesitant to seek such help or stay in shelters, even if space is available, for a variety of personal reasons, he said.

Verity Stevenson/CBC
Verity Stevenson/CBC

All the curfew did was ensure those who were already hiding in the shadows, went further into hiding, Chapman says, even if police were showing discretion.

However, just knowing they could get a $1,500 ticket only added more stress to those already struggling to feed themselves and keep warm, Chapman said.

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter, was among the first to call on the Quebec government to grant homeless people amnesty from the curfew.

"There are not enough spaces in Montreal for the people that are homeless," Nakuset said.

For Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, there is ultimately only one solution.

"The answer is that we need to help them get back into housing," he said. "Governments have been very hesitant to provide solution-type support, instead providing temporary solutions and band-aids."