A dozen homeless people camping under the Ville-Marie highway, near Atwater Avenue, will soon be evicted due to work planned by the Quebec Ministry of Transport (MTQ), which does not seem to have a specific plan. to relocate them.
“The MTQ wants to get rid of us in the middle of winter, that’s not correct. They tell us to go to shelters, but they don’t help us, ”laments Jacko Stuben, who says he set up camp in this inhospitable place more than 10 years ago. “I need help, I’m looking for help, but it’s not easy. »
He says he recently received a visit from MTQ employees who warned the campers that they should evacuate the premises before the construction site starts under the highway lanes, at the end of March or the beginning of April.
The homeless group had already been threatened with eviction last November, but the government had decided in extremis to postpone the operation, to give them time to find a place to stay.
But in fact, only one person, an elderly lady, moved into a dwelling on the 1er February, with the help of a community group.
The other campers are still there. Tents and shelters made of plastic sheeting are strewn across the dirt site, set back from Atwater Avenue, under the highway’s concrete slab, which offers some protection from the weather, despite the noise of traffic and passing trains.
Each group has installed its belongings in its corner. Here we find an old torn armchair, there a rickety barbecue, further on a rusty bicycle. Clothes, food and trash litter the frozen ground. In one corner, a plastic bucket serves as a toilet.
Jacko Stuben’s camp is delimited by numerous garbage and recycling bins. In Canada for 35 years, the man from Sri Lanka has a mania for picking up and keeping everything he finds; he therefore lives surrounded by a heap of heterogeneous objects and rubbish. He says he’s worked as an exterminator before, so insect poisons go hand in hand with food.
Next door, a couple, whose wife is pregnant, prefers to stay in their tent on this cold morning. All you can hear is their cough through the thin canvas.
“These are people who are not easy to relocate. Some use drugs, others are in a relationship and do not want to separate to go to shelters, others have animals, ”explains David Chapman, director of the organization Résilience Montréal, which administers a day shelter. not far on rue Sainte-Catherine, where hot meals are served and where homeless people can take a shower, among other things.
“I don’t know what I’ll do when we’re dislodged, I’ll improvise. That’s life ! says John, a young man who pitched his tent at the camp four or five months ago. During the winter, he had his bike trailer stolen containing all his belongings, including his tent and sleeping bag. Fortunately, a community organization helped him get new ones, and John is very proud of his new tent.
“That’s the danger when you live outside: you risk being robbed, there can be violence,” notes David Chapman. But a camp is also a small community. People help each other and can watch over each other when they are sick. »
It is for this reason that we cannot easily tear these people away from their living environment, he adds. “If they are dislodged, they will look for another place to pitch their tent, where they may be isolated, therefore more at risk,” he says, pointing out that there are other places under the highway that could accommodate tents.
At the Ministry of Transport, it is assured that it is imperative to evacuate the site, since the work to be carried out would endanger the safety of the campers. “The Ministry does not have the expertise to find housing for these people. This is why we are working with the Ministry of Health, with the CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, and with the cities of Westmount and Montreal to relocate them,” said the spokesperson for the MTQ Sarah Bensadoun.
“Team Connexion works with the homeless population of the region we serve,” said spokesperson for the CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal Barry Morgan, in a response. sent by email. “The members of this team have visited the campers in question several times. Services have been offered several times in the past, and we continue to offer them. Campers have the right to refuse services, and often do. Campers have been advised that they must move. »
Since the homeless refuse to leave the premises, who will take care of their eviction? “We are not in charge of dismantling camps,” replies Mr. Morgan.
The City of Westmount, where the land in question is located, specifies that the site is under the jurisdiction of the MTQ. At the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal, spokesperson Caroline Labelle points out that “it is therefore the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) which intervenes in support of the MTQ” at this location.
On the SQ side, spokesperson Camille Savoie cannot confirm whether the MTQ has made a request for assistance. “They’re the ones responsible if they want to kick people out,” she said.
Jacko Stuben would like to have his own apartment where he could live with two roommates and have a vegetable garden in the backyard. “But housing costs $1,800! How could I afford this? “, he drops.
“Why can’t we find subsidized and supervised housing for them? asks David Chapman. “It would be much better than spending money to send the police to the scene every time there is a complaint. »
“The problem will not go away”
Federal Housing Advocate Marie-Josée Houle worries about the upcoming eviction after visiting the encampment under the Ville-Marie highway last week.
“The situation is complex, but what is the government’s strategy? she asks. “We can’t just say, ‘You have to leave this place, otherwise we’ll take your things away, we’ll destroy the tools that help you survive and give you some security.’ »
According to Mme Swell, it is essential to find solutions adapted to the situation of each person in need, and not send them to any shelter. “To respect their dignity, we have to discuss it with them to find the right accommodation, but there are so few accommodations available,” she laments.
If there is no alternative for them but to live in a camp, a recent Superior Court decision in Ontario suggests that the government must let them settle there, and even provide them with sanitary facilities and drinking water, she notes.
“For several years, municipalities have used the police or harassment to force campers to move. It makes them disappear in one place, but the problem will not go away,” she points out.
The Federal Housing Advocate launched a review in February into encampments in Canada and the human rights abuses of those residing there. The result of this exercise should lead next fall to recommendations for the federal government.