Out in the cold: Homelessness policy in Montreal

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

On a given night in Montreal, over 3,000 members of the homeless population sleep on the streets. To mitigate the problem of overcrowded shelters during the winter months, the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) will begin providing shelter for homeless people and their pets from Jan. 15 to mid-April. The temporary facility, which may service up to 80 individuals per night, will only be used once resources, such as the Old Brewery Mission, are at full capacity. The RVH initiative joins a list of municipal measures implemented to meet long-standing demands for increased affordable housing options.

On March 6 2018, the Quebec government unveiled an $11 million investment over the next four years to assist in rehabilitating the homeless. This expenditure would not only help a portion of the homeless obtain permanent homes but also fund the city’s three principal overnight shelters. The day following the Quebec government’s announcement, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante introduced Montreal’s 2018-2020 plan to reduce homelessness. The initiative consists of four themes: supporting and sharing public space, enhancing individuals’ sense of security and stability, providing housing to prevent homelessness, and working together towards social inclusion. The combination of these approaches, from increasing the accessibility and perception of services for the homeless to social integration projects, aims to create a more inclusive culture for the homeless. The city’s plan will also have tangible results in the creation of 950 social housing units and 100 rooms over the next four years, increasing housing security.

Another aspect of Montreal’s policy on homelessness includes a more targeted approach by police forces. Each year, the Montreal police receive over 10,000 calls related to the homeless, so an action plan for the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) to address the issue is necessary. The city’s answer to homeless intervention is the Équipe mobile de référence et d'intervention en itinérance (EMRII). Created by the SPVM in 2009, the team of six police officers and four outreach workers attempts to solve issues that the homeless face. The officers also routinely check on individuals experiencing homelessness, build relationships with them, and ensure their well-being.

The EMRII team is trained to sensitively approach the homeless, of whom an estimated 2,000 people suffer from mental health difficulties. Training to engage with populations who often have intellectual or developmental disabilities is vital, as approximately 45 per cent of Montreal’s homeless population suffer from a mental disorder or a substance abuse disorder.

Additionally, Indigenous people are increasingly experiencing homelessness. The growing number of homeless Indigenous Montrealers requires police to acknowledge indigenous cultural values when engaging with members of the community. By combining multiple state actors, a more comprehensive approach is taken to reduce harm to the homeless. The EMRII delivers both legal and healthcare-related assistance, as the team’s ultimate objective is to reduce prosecutions and improve the living conditions of homeless people.

However, Montreal’s policy on homelessness has not evaded debate and criticism. Policing practices of ticketing homeless youth for municipal and transportation infractions can be interpreted as forms of profiling rather than means to reduce crime. Despite the creation of the EMRII, some Indigenous advocates have criticized the latest Indigenous sensitivity training program offered to Montreal police for neglecting Inuit history.

The impact of homelessness policy implementation in Montreal is currently difficult to measure since many of the plans were put into effect this year and encompass projects of construction and attempts at social change. Ultimately, a decline in homelessness would indicate the effectiveness of both the EMRII team and Plante’s policies. However, a change in police officers’ attitudes towards the homeless would also show that the inclusivity aspect of Montreal’s policies resonates with law enforcement authorities.