Change Is Spare

As the winter snow creates a blanket over Montreal, it’s not enough to cover the city’s homeless problem.

Photo Mattha Busby

The scowl that many homeless people receive when asking “Vous avez un peu de change?” is one that I myself sometimes bestow upon them.

Society at large needs to reexamine the ways in which we treat those that we keep on the margins. Otherwise we will only perpetuate a growing problem.

This year, the city of Montreal increased its annual expenditure on homelessness from $1.4 to $2.4 million. The city’s total operating budget stands at $4.9 billion.

Food for thought: $2.4 million as a percentage of $4.9 billion stands at roughly 0.0005 per cent. With approximately 6,000 homeless individuals in the city, this amounts to roughly $400 per person.

The first person I interviewed as I began my research for this article, a particularly articulate man named John Hawkins, told me several interesting things that I sought to investigate further.

He was highly critical of the state. “[Society] is designed to keep us in this situation,” he told me. “Without us on the street, there’s no need for people to delegate whatever they delegate; there’s corruption in high echelons.”

When asked what he does now that it’s rather cold outside, he said that he tries to get into a shelter sometimes, although “the shelters give preference to occupants over new admissions.” In the absence of a bed in a shelter, “we stay in the metro until it closes and then we go out into the streets.”

How do you get welfare payments?

When asked about the possibility of obtaining welfare, one man I spoke to lamented: “You cannot get welfare without an address.”

David Chapman, assistant director at Westmount drop-in centre La Porte Ouverte, confirmed that you need an address to obtain social assistance.

“[However] various groups will provide an address to those without one. Many people get the minimum $600 through that route,” he said.

I visited downtown women’s shelter Chez Doris and met Marie Hampton, who was critical of the welfare payments.

“There’s a baseball catcher who just earned $52 million. I’m 60 and I make $10,000 in welfare and disability [$927 per month], so there’s hope for me yet,” she said.

Bruce Fraser, a regular visitor to La Porte Ouverte, said it’s “too easy” to get social assistance.

“[All you need is a] doctor’s certificate that proves you’re unable to work,” the welfare recipient said, noting that he had not had a medical evaluation in 27 years. The state tried to revoke his social assistance payments 15 years ago, but he “hopped back on the wagon and bullshitted the doctor.”

“No matter if you’re in good health or not, no one can deny you medical welfare,” he said.

Bruce believes that society must “de-stigmatize both the homeless and ex-drug addicts, [especially] those with criminal records, through an affirmative action-style thing.” He said there aren’t enough reintegration programs for the homeless.

I found that there are some systems in place to help those in poverty to survive, but the whole of society has to radically alter the way it treats and views the homeless.

As I stopped to speak with homeless people throughout the past two weeks, it was hard to ignore the scorn in the eyes of passers-by.

There may be day services, but there need to be more social reintegration schemes. Currently, if you can’t find employment, you don’t really have a way out. Change is clearly not reaching the right people.

Montreal mayor Denis Coderre’s announcement of more municipal funding for dealing with homelessness amounts to little more than rhetoric.

There need to be more work schemes backed by municipal, provincial and federal authorities, along with psychological treatment if necessary, which will not just keep the homeless alive but improve their quality of life.

Is there enough room at the inn?

The homeless begin to line up at Old Brewery Mission or the Welcome Hall Mission around 1 p.m. to secure a bed for the night. Unfortunately, there are far fewer beds than needed.

This is why day centres like La Porte Ouverte and Chez Doris are so busy.

One man wearing a cap that read “Native Pride,” who preferred to not be named, doesn’t go to shelters because they’re infested with bedbugs. “I prefer my sleeping bag,” he said.

I also spoke to Benoit, who begs in the city throughout the day before camping on the mountain and has a similar dislike for shelters.

Part of Coderre’s plan to fight homelessness is to create 600 social housing units and 400 rooming house beds. He gave a timeframe of three years for the new housing in September.

There still aren’t enough beds in the city, and as economic conditions continue to deteriorate outside of metropolitan centres, we can expect plenty of new arrivals.

Through my research, I found that the welfare state is actually broadly inclusive. $600 per month appears to be readily available, but it’s not much. It’s almost enough to survive, but it surely can’t facilitate upward social mobility.

Who is homeless?

Matthew Pearce, the Old Mission Brewery’s president and CEO, told The Link that “critical housing shortages in the north [of Quebec] are forcing people south, which particularly affects densely populated Inuit communities.”

He estimated there are around 6,000 homeless people in Montreal. In September, Coderre announced plans for a “homeless census” in order to get a better idea of where to allocate resources.

We have yet to get a definitive census from Coderre’s office, for it was never supposed to happen in the fall.

“People aren’t homeless because they lost the keys to their apartment,” Pearce said. “Housing must come with counselling support.”

Chapman echoed Pearce’s remarks. “Many Inuit people leave thinking life will be better, but when they get to Montreal they realize getting that job isn’t that easy if you don’t speak French.”

When asked what he thought the root of homelessness was, Chapman listed “mental illness, drug use, family violence and displacement from northern communities.”

However, austerity is also producing some new, more unlikely victims of homelessness. There is a “high-functioning populace that are on the margins of being on the street,” Chapman said.

“There may have been cutbacks at work and whereas you used to work 40 hours a week, you now work for only 10-12 hours,” Chapman said. “There is a huge range to what homelessness is.”

It must be difficult to administer a system in which some people do not seek upward socioeconomic mobility, though. Nadejdra Yilich, visiting Chez Doris, said her son “likes to be on the street” and “works the system.”

Nadejdra—which is Russian for hope—grew up in a ruined house in Leningrad with four other families. She moved to Nigeria with a man she had met at her university, who then abused her.

She later came to Montreal and obtained a degree in linguistics from Concordia. Now she shares a 1 ½ and hangs out at Chez Doris after a brain tumour left her unable to work.

She believes that the housing system and landlords in Montreal discriminate against outsiders.

She told the story of her friend who lived on Newman Blvd. at the edge of LaSalle. When she returned one day, she found her stuff had been chucked out because her landlord had found her cats.

Nadejdra herself awaits a court hearing after her landlord allegedly demanded $10,000 for water damage. She said the damage had existed before she moved into the apartment.

Even when you get off the street, life is never an easy ride.

What to do if times get tough

There are many services throughout the city to help the homeless. These include Dans la rue, the Old Brewery Mission and the YMCA, in addition to Chez Doris and La Porte Ouverte.

“Homeless people are moving around a lot at night, which is why day centres exist,” said Chapman of La Porte Ouverte. “We put the pews to good use out there.”

La Porte Ouverte provides a food bag worth $40 for around an hour’s work along with free clothing, breakfast and lunch, laundry and footwash facilities, telephone/Internet access, haircuts and eyeglasses.

Relief organisations such as Doctors Without Borders often visit to provide medical help.

The centre aims to help people regain hope in themselves—and there are indeed stories of hope.

Chapman told me that the work he does is all the more worth it when the centre helps reintegrate people within society.

This, however, is not happening often enough.

And as Pearce reminded us, “85 per cent of the people who use our shelter are in a chronic state of homelessness.”

“Shelters are not a solution,” he said. “We should focus on getting them out of the shelter and into supported housing in a more respectable environment, which will give people a chance to succeed.”