A blue Toys R Us shopping cart, a defunct heating lamp, an old cat tree and quivering heaps of nylon tents. These items are strewn around the so-called Atwater encampment under Montreal’s Ville Marie Expressway remained undisturbed Thursday morning after the province’s transport ministry postponed its plan to send police in to dismantle it.
On Nov. 1, the dozen or so residents of the encampment received a 10-day eviction notice from Transports Quebec, that own the land under the expressway, a main highway thoroughfare leading into Montreal’s downtown core.
A spokesperson for Transports Quebec told APTN News there is a 3-year, $35 million restoration project underway – and the camp is obstructing access to areas that need to be repaired.
But frontline workers told APTN they’re skeptical of the true motives.
“The situation’s quite a bit more complicated than that,” explained David Chapman, executive director of Resilience Montreal, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for the wellbeing of Montreal’s homeless population.
“The reason that’s been given is construction, which is something of a convenient reason to execute a ‘not in my backyard’ principle – which is very much alive and well.’”
The city’s homeless population was in “crisis mode” long before the pandemic.
The results of a 2022 homelessness survey conducted in mid-October have yet to be released. However, the previous assessment, completed in 2018, found more than 3,100 living on the streets of Montreal.
With COVID-19, and a rental crisis now on the books, interventionists feel the situation today is likely worse – yet attitudes towards the homeless haven’t changed.
Chapman said residents in the area around the Ville-Marie Expressway started expressing safety concerns after campers began settling beneath it.
“It’s kind of like if someone in a very large truck said, you know, ‘I feel afraid of that cyclist because they might run into me, I might be in danger,’” he added.
“Part of the challenge here is to help people come to a certain objectivity and realize that, sometimes, while they may feel a fear, it’s not – in the objective world – a real fear.”
Two Indigenous people died of exposure on Montreal’s streets between 2021 and 2022.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault drew public ire when, in response to the call-out for more resources, claimed there were enough shelter beds to meet the demand in Montreal.
However, an intervention worker at the site – who spoke to APTN on condition they not be named – explained most of the city’s shelters are still operating at 65 per cent capacity on advice from Montreal Public Health.
Meanwhile, the lists for social housing, according to Chapman, are long and languishing,
“[So] if in the meantime you find your own solution in a tent, you shouldn’t be penalized for it,” he added.
Kathleen Wilson, a resident of the Atwater encampment, said she was on the waiting list for an apartment for five years.
When she finally was approved for a lease one year ago, she said her rent subsidy application was rejected because she’d previously been taken to Montreal’s rental board for non-payment of rent.
She told APTN the camp setup allows her more freedom than shelter life.
“I’ve been in shelters – I don’t like the fact of going in at 8:30 at night or whatever and not being able to do what I want to do. I panhandle until 4 in the morning. So [here] I come in when I want like I had my own apartment,” Wilson explained.
“I’m not a baby no more. I’m 61. Why would I go to a shelter when I can live in a tent and go do what I want to do?”
Transport Quebec told APTN the eviction is not cancelled – only postponed to a future date.
The goal now, according to spokesperson Sarah Bensadoun, is to have Quebec’s ministry of Social Services get involved to help “relocate” camp residents.
Chapman and Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, were on-site under the expressway Thursday meeting with campers to hear their ideas and details about specific needs.
“This is a time to share, and also to put your demands: what are we expecting from this pause in the eviction? What is their next step? Their original plan was to evict everyone, and to have a group of social workers come and ask them how they’re feeling about it,” she said.
“The thing is that everybody knows where the resources are. Everyone is very much aware of where they could possibly go. The problem is, they’re either not accepted, or there’s no room. So unless you have something tangible, this is just a band-aid.”
“I think the government should step up and do something, because they don’t help the homeless,” Wilson added. “They help the immigrants, they help everybody else – but they don’t help us.”
“We’re their own people. So step up and help us.”