Housing crisis

Montreal’s Housing Crisis Leads Experts to Discuss Short- and Long-Term Solutions

Calls on the government to address the lack of emergency shelter and accessible social services

As winter and Omicron strain Montreal’s shelter system, experts discuss options to address the housing and homelessness crisis. Photo courtesy Kelsey Litwin

In March 2020, the pandemic forced shelters to adopt regulations that limit the number of people admitted.

The emergence of the highly contagious variant of Omicron, in addition to the extreme cold snap the city faced, added another layer of stress to an inefficient system. For vulnerable people, this crisis has had serious consequences.

On January 18, 2021, Raphaël André died in the night a few steps from where he had taken refuge during the day. Over the next year, two more homeless people in the city lost their lives.

Read more: The Raphaël Napa André memorial: One year later

Although there is little debate among experts that something needs to change in order to better protect the vulnerable, discussion persists over how best to tackle the problem.

“I am often asked the question ‘How many emergency beds are there in Montreal?’ and my answer is: it doesn’t matter. There will never be enough if our system continues to operate as it has for the past 100 years,” said Sam Watts, CEO of Welcome Hall Mission.

The current charitable model, as Watts describes it, is an effective emergency service, but he believes it often overlooks the long-term needs of many people facing housing insecurity. He questions whether or not the funds are directed and allocated effectively. Watts added that shelter programs should be linked more to the health system. Focusing on the link between homelessness and urban health care delivery will provide tools that are not just short-term or band-aid solutions.

David Chapman, project manager at Resilience Montreal, is careful not to let the discussion give people the perception that long-term social housing is the solution. While he understands the essential role social housing plays in helping people reintegrate into society, he strongly advocates the development of more accessible emergency shelters.

Chapman also said he understands how tempting it is to redirect funds from emergency resources to low-cost housing, but that it cannot come at the expense of the shelters that are keeping people alive. He said approaching the issue with the mentality that social housing will present better solutions risks overlooking the deeper issues of homelessness.

“We are not going to host Raphaël André,” he said. “No one will ever put him in a cheap apartment because he died. And he died because there were no proper emergency services.

While it may seem like there’s a divide among experts between the need for more funding for long-term homes and emergency services, everyone agrees on one thing. The process of helping homeless people settle into housing is quite nuanced.

Each shelter and each community faces different realities, explains Chantal Laferrière, executive director of St Michael’s Mission. She added that those looking for accommodation resources each have their own unique needs and should therefore be treated as separate individuals. Laferriere said the goal of just putting them in housing was not working because St Michael’s Mission is constantly admitting more people.

Laferrière said he has a clientele that has been living alone for 40 years. After so many years of being socially disconnected, they need more time and resources to help them get used to everyday tasks, like working, cleaning, and sometimes even sleeping in their own bed. Having response workers available to support people once they have moved into their own accommodation would not only provide guidance, but also help overcome the potential loneliness that is often experienced when transitioning into housing.

Watts agrees that efforts to connect with homeless people as they reintegrate into a community are a necessary step to improving the system.

“One of the defining factors for people becoming homeless is social disconnection,” he said. “We need to reconnect them socially, not just in a four-walled apartment.”