MONTREAL - Alexandre was sorting cans one recent morning outside a tent pitched next to a busy Montreal road by the Port of Montreal.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he had been sleeping at a homeless shelter, but when health measures forced the shelter to cut its capacity, he was forced onto the street. For the past three months, Alexandre, who refused to give his last name, has called this informal encampment east of downtown Montreal home. In late November, his was one of more than 40 tents on the thin stretch of grass.
“So far it hasn’t been too cold,” he told a reporter. He likes that people are free to come and go, unlike the shelter, which he says was “like a prison.” He figures he'll tough it out through the winter.
While tent cities like this are new to Montreal, shelter workers and experts say it’s not necessarily a sign that significantly more people in Montreal are homeless. But they all agree that the pandemic has made homelessness more visible and disrupted the way people access both formal and informal services.
“There have been people who have lost their homes and the places where they were staying as a function of COVID,” said Samuel Watts, the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, which provides a variety of services to Montrealers in precarious situations. “How many? That’s not clear.”
In a statement on Sunday, the acting director of the city's fire safety service, Richard Liebmann, said he ordered the encampment be dismantled after a fire broke out at the site a day earlier.
Mayor Valerie Plante said the fire "is not only worrying, but it could have been tragic and led to deaths."
"As a municipal administration, we have a responsibility to guarantee the safety of our fellow citizens. We will therefore do what is necessary to accommodate the campers in a safe place right now," she said in the statement.
Serge Lareault, Montreal’s commissioner for people experiencing homelessness, said the pandemic has made the homeless more visible. Before, he said, people experiencing homelessness would spend time in restaurants or day centres, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, they have been pushed outside. In Montreal, restaurants, coffee shops and libraries have been closed since Oct. 1.
“We do have the impression that there is an increase in homelessness, or at least an increased demand for emergency shelter services,” Lareault said. However, there’s no shortage of shelter space, he said.
The City of Montreal has doubled the number of beds available in the city’s shelter system — including a 380-bed shelter in a converted four-star hotel downtown that’s now being operated by the Welcome Hall Mission.
Sylvain Di Lallo said last week he’s been staying at the hotel for several days with his girlfriend. Before that he spent nearly three months at the tent city. He said he decided to go to the hotel shelter when the weather turned colder.
Di Lallo, 51, said he works as a window washer on highrise buildings, but there hasn’t been much work since the pandemic began. His employer’s largest client, a university in downtown Montreal, cancelled its contract, and window washers can’t go up when it's raining or snowing. He hopes the work will return in the spring.
Di Lallo said he had been living in an apartment and was about to move when his rent money was stolen. It’s tough enough to find an affordable apartment in Montreal, he said, and his bad credit makes it even more difficult.
Staying at Hotel Place Dupuis “is not too bad,” he said. There’s a shower in the room and while there’s no TV, there is Wi-Fi, and he can stay with his girlfriend — something that isn’t possible in a traditional shelter. “The only thing that’s a little bit annoying is the waiting,” he said. He has to show up around an hour before the doors open to ensure he and his girlfriend can get a room together.
Welcome Hall's Watts said the goal isn’t to just give people a warm, comfortable place to stay for the night. “It's also so that we can help them meet with people who are going to help them get back into permanent housing,” he said.
That needs knowing about people’s needs, he said. A woman with two children who has left an abusive situation has very different needs than a 55-year-old man who has been living on the street for two years.
While the number of people experiencing homelessness in Montreal may not have risen significantly, Welcome Hall's other services are in higher demand.
“What we're seeing is a lot more people who are housed, but who are struggling to make ends meet,” Watts said, noting that about 1,500 new people have started using their free food services since the beginning of the pandemic. Other organizations providing similar services also report rising demand.
The Open Door, a day centre in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, last week started opening 24 hours a day, said John Tessier, the centre’s intervention coordinator. “We have seen an increase in people, and a lot of different people than we used to serve,” he said.
He said the biggest impact of the pandemic on the population he works with has been on their mental health. Many doctors are now only seeing patients on Zoom calls, he said, which means homeless people who don’t have access to laptops or computers have trouble getting treatment.
“Many of the people who (were) getting support for their mental health issues are unable to get support now,” he said.
There was a time when homeless shelters “saw their services as the end, that it was good enough to provide a meal, a bed and a shower," said James Hughes, the president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, a homeless shelter in Montreal. "None of us do that anymore. We all know our job is housing.”
He said 93 per cent of the hundreds of people his organization helpsfind housing every year stay housed, but there isn't enough housing available — particularly for people who are chronically homeless and need adapted services.
“The problem of homelessness in Montreal has become the problem of subsidized supportive housing,” he said.
The current and past residents of the tent city in eastern Montreal know that only too well.
Alexandre said there needs to be more subsidized housing, where people pay 25 per cent of their income in rent. In a commercial apartment, his welfare cheque won’t cover much more than rent.
Di Lallo said he’s started meeting with a social worker after arriving at the hotel and hopes to get into a program that will help him manage his money as well as provide him with housing.
"If I get an apartment, for sure I'm going to pay," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.