Solving Homelessness: Montréal’s model program

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

The best model IMCL has found for coping with homelessness is that enacted by Mayor Valérie Plante and the City of Montréal. Homelessness is escalating in many cities, and it is urgent that we all learn from the best models available.  

Not only does Montréal address the core issues of providing housing and services. They also understand the problem in a holistic way – the need to protect those at risk of losing their home, making services more accessible, addressing issues relating to the public realm, and constant collaboration between public and community partners. 

Place Emilie-Gamelin, Montreal

Mayor Plante, Montréal’s first-ever woman mayor, continues the policy set by former Mayor Coderre to solve the problem of Montréal’s 15-20,000 homeless with a new three-year Can. $7.8-million plan.

Housing:

Montréal is doing more than simply providing emergency shelters, day shelters, and housing. Over the next 4 years the City will build about 950 social and community housing units and around 100 rooms, and develop approaches geared toward people who are chronically homeless. 

As reported in the Montréal Gazette:

  • “Montreal’s new plan to combat homelessness will target not only the 3,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters on any given night, but also the far greater numbers of so-called “hidden homeless,” Mayor Valérie Plante said Wednesday.”
  • “That includes a wide range of people living precariously, from young people couch-surfing with friends to seniors facing eviction from the apartment where they’ve lived for years, Plante said during a visit to an emergency shelter and day centre for women in the Gay Village.”
  • “The goal of the plan will actually be to put together a portrait of what is going on across the city. We need a clear portrait to establish where the needs are and how and where to invest,” she said. Plante added the city will be calling on higher levels of government to help foot the bill.”

Social support programs:

“Helping people transition out of homelessness as well as preventing the latter is central to our city’s social development” said Rosannie Filato, the executive committee member responsible for social and community development, homelessness. As in all homelessness programs, Montréal offers food and clothing, programs for mental and physical health, and job assistance.

An essential aspect of this program is to make all the homeless services safe and accessible. Women, indigenous people, people with severe substance abuse problems or mental disorders, and other individuals with specific needs often avoid using services if they do not feel secure.     

As reported in the Star, “Montréal’s $7.8-million homeless strategy also includes ‘wet shelter’ to give people with alcoholism controlled space”.

Social inclusion in the public realm:

Streets, squares, and public transit are often places of conflict between the homeless and other residents. Some cities simply respond to demands from businesses and residents to clean up the public realm, by sweeping the homeless out, and cleaning up the debris. A somewhat more tolerant approach has been to clean up one area at a time, overlooking the fact that the homeless have no choice but to move to a new encampment. Punitive cities have even tried to make sleeping on the street illegal, but what good does that do when there is insufficient housing to accommodate these growing numbers? 

Montréal takes a different approach. The larger issue is “to find ways to bring people back into society and reduce the conflict that often exists… between homeless and non-homeless people,” said Matthew Pearce, president and chief executive officer of the Old Brewery Mission, the city’s largest nonprofit organization focused on the homeless.

Entitled “Because the street has many faces” (Parce que la rue a différents visages) Montréal’s program addresses head-on the controversies that arise from the presence of homeless individuals and groups in public places. 

The homeless are humans too.

In Montréal they have acknowledged that the homeless are members of the larger community – and they often have no option but to occupy the public realm day and night. Montréal’s solution is a program of “social inclusion” - to make small adjustments to the public realm so that all residents can comfortably use the spaces without disruption. 

Place Émilie-Gamelin in downtown Montréal has been given a makeover, with areas set up for social interaction, cultural events, concerts, games, and picnics. 

“On a recent sunny summer afternoon in Émilie-Gamelin, people sat at picnic benches, listening to a concert and watching families play ping-pong in the park plaza. Among them was Paul, a well-groomed man dressed in gym attire. … Paul is one of the homeless people who stay at Émilie-Gamelin.”

On another square, Cabot Square, where homeless indigenous people were being pushed out by condo developments, the City organized workshops in which the homeless Inuit artisans carved stone and taught the public about their culture.

As Adrienne Campbell, director of the nonprofit Projets Autochtones du Québec said:
“It’s great for the people themselves who are homeless but it’s also fantastic for building bridges with the public, who are getting to learn from the homeless. It brings a positive cultural space where normally their culture is pushed to the side.”
"The effect of the social inclusion programming has yielded noticeable dividends. People are more respectful when they’re in the park space. The people who are homeless participate more in the activities so that’s been really positive.” 

“Ultimately”, emphasizes Campbell, “you need the political will and a mayor who is going to champion that and say ‘No, no, we are not going to treat homeless people badly and we’re not going to push them away.’”

Working together:

Montreal’s plan is the result of a consultation with partners and around 100 homeless people.   “I hope that by working closely with our partners and the boroughs, and consulting homeless people regularly, we will improve the living conditions and well-being of these very vulnerable citizens,” said the mayor