Unheard of in Montreal: along a green space along a wide boulevard, hundreds of homeless tents have stretched since the summer, some of which have been thrown onto the streets by the pandemic.
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“Welcome to the chic Notre-Dame camp! Laughs Jacques Brochu, nicknamed “the mayor” by his neighbors.
At 60 years old, Mr. Brochu says he found himself in July in this camp along the boulevard of the same name, after having lost his affordable housing, claimed by its owner.
Like his neighbors, he lives in his tent and is preparing to face the Quebec winter, where the mercury often drops below -20 degrees Celsius.
“I can heat my tent very well,” he explains, pointing to his little candles. A tarp covering his shelter does the rest.
In this camp in Hochelaga, a former working-class neighborhood in eastern Montreal in the process of gentrification, chronically homeless people rub shoulders with people who have lost their jobs, students or homeless workers.
Homeless for six years and living in a small caravan, Guylain Levasseur, 55, is a bit like the “manager” of the camp.
“We have the network”
Next to his caravan, lined with armchairs, he has set up a “kitchen”, which an awning and tarpaulins protect against the elements. People come to give and get food.
“There are people who come to bring us meals every day,” he adds.
His van is overflowing with sleeping bags and warm clothes also given to campers by Good Samaritans.
For the past three months, he has spent part of his meager social allowances on the purchase of electric generators to heat tents.
He has seven installed, which run on donated gasoline, he says in the purring of the engines.
Another occupant has set up an internet network. “We have the network here, Notre-Dame encampment,” he said proudly, pointing to his trailer, topped with a relay antenna.
Homeless people also have access to portable toilets.
At Montreal City Hall, Serge Lareault, Commissioner for Homeless Persons, recognizes that the pandemic has “thrown hundreds of people into the streets”.
“It’s new in Montreal, the phenomenon of camps,” he told AFP.
From around 3,000 in recent years, the number of homeless has increased dramatically with the pandemic, compounded by a chronic shortage of affordable housing.
“Our emergency accommodation services are overflowing, there is a growing demand, there are campers all over the city.”
As a result, “more than 1,000 people” are now sleeping outside in Montreal, up from around 700 before the virus arrived, according to Lareault’s estimates.
Hotel for homeless people
Faced with the emergency, the government of Quebec and the city of Montreal are stepping up initiatives. Open at the beginning of November, a hotel should soon accommodate 380 homeless people from evening to morning until the end of March.
But not everyone necessarily wants to frequent these homes with spartan rules and dangerous promiscuity in the midst of a pandemic.
Mr. Brochu experienced this in the spring after losing his home.
“You never know who is going to be our neighbor, or where he went before,” he explains.
He doesn’t want to go back.
“I am able to manage here,” he said, wearing a “brand new” anorak donated by benefactors.
“As long as there are people who stay here, I will be there”, also assures Guylain Levasseur.
Mr. Lareault agrees that some homeless “camp regularly and … are certainly able to stay all winter”, but certainly not the majority of them. “The cold is really a deterrent”.
He wants these people to “take advantage of the new facilities. It’s still a hotel, it’s comfortable, so that’s where we work. “
“If there is any danger (…), we will have to invite them to leave” the camp, he warns.
M. Brochu sees it differently:
“The problem for the political level is that we are visible. And people like it that homelessness, misery, it is invisible, “he says, before concluding:” My freedom is priceless.