Unheard of in Montreal: along a green space at the edge of a wide boulevard stretched since the summer a hundred tents of homeless people, some of which were thrown into the street by the pandemic.
“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 bordering 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 manage to heat my tent very well,” he explains, showing his little candles. A tarpaulin covering his shelter does the rest.
In this camp of Hochelaga, a former working-class neighborhood in the east of 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 bad weather. 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 three months, he has devoted part of his meager social benefits to the purchase of electric generators to heat tents.
He has seven installed, which run thanks to donations of gasoline, he underlines in the purring of the engines.
Another occupant has set up an internet network. “We have the network here, Notre-Dame camp,” he said with pride, pointing to his caravan, topped with a relay antenna.
Homeless people also have access to portable toilets.
At Montreal City Hall, Serge Lareault, Commissioner for Homeless People, 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”.
Result: “more than 1000 people” are now sleeping outside in Montreal, against about 700 before the arrival of the virus, according to estimates by Mr. Lareault.
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 itinerants from evening to morning until the end of March.
But not all do not necessarily want to frequent these homes with Spartan rules and dangerous promiscuity in the middle 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.
“Here, I am able to arrange myself,” he said wearing a “brand new” anorak donated by benefactors.
“As long as there are people who stay here, I will be there,” Guylain Levasseur also assures us.
Mr. Lareault agrees that some homeless people “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 what we’re working on. “
“If there is 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 ”.