Montreal Police Raid Another Homeless Encampment

"We're seeing more homelessness today than we've ever seen before"

Sabrina, who is pregnant, spends one last morning at the Atwater hill encampment with her partner Enzo. PHOTO: Chris Curtis

Sabrina rolled out of bed and cleared the damp air from her lungs.

After coughing most of it out, she fumbled with the tent flap, opened it and took in one of her last mornings under the highway. 

The homeless encampment on Atwater hill is sheltered by six lanes of concrete towering overhead. Rain’s been pouring through the structure’s drainage pipes lately, turning the site into a muddy pit. But it still beats sleeping out in the open. Less than 100 feet from Sabrina’s tent, Transport Ministry workers drilled holes into the overpass, adding dust, mud and a deafening screech into the mix.

Still rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Sabrina reached for her cooler and grabbed a juicebox.

“When we get our apartment, I’m gonna stock the fridge with steaks,” said Sabrina, who is six months pregnant. “My doctor says I have low iron and I’ve been getting these cravings for meat. Just can’t get steak off my mind.”

Over the past year, Quebec’s Transport Ministry has fought to clear the encampment so they could begin work on a $37 million contract to repair the overpass. But Sabrina and a small group of advocates fought back in court, delaying the evictions on humanitarian grounds.

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In a ruling handed down last spring, Superior Court Judge Chantal Masse said forcing “extremely vulnerable” people back onto the streets would put their lives at risk. Masse ordered the Transport Ministry to delay the evictions and help people like Sabrina find housing that suits their needs.

After dragging its feet for months, the Transport Ministry brought in social workers to help find suitable housing for the residents.

Some of the residents managed to get out from under the highway. Last month, Michel Chabot — who was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer last winter — signed a lease and took possession of his own apartment. It marked the end of a year that saw him evicted from encampments in Chinatown and Old Montreal before settling in a tent under the highway.

“When the police raided the encampment (in Old Montreal), they took everything I had in the world,” Chabot said in a previous interview with The Rover. “The last pictures I had of my dead children were wiped off this earth. […] I can’t go through that again. Not with my health the way it is.”

Chabot now lives comfortably in the West End, and follows up with treatments weekly. But others have been less fortunate.

One elderly man needs regular treatments for a blood infection but only managed to get funding for a hotel after the eviction. Others have struggled to find housing that’s affordable, willing to take tenants with no credit history or references and a short distance from the shelters that serve them food.

But with the winter cold behind us and repairs on a critical piece of infrastructure stalling, the courts would no longer delay the eviction. On Tuesday, as dump trucks lined up at the entrance of the encampment, a squad car from the provincial police stood guard. Workers from a nearby shelter helped pack the last of the residents’ belongings as they scrambled to find a place to stay that night.

Sabrina and her partner Enzo had scrounged together enough cash to stay in a hotel for a few nights. But if they can’t find an apartment soon, they’ll lose custody of their child when it’s born.

“A baby needs to grow up in a safe place, in an apartment with its own room and two healthy parents,” Enzo said. “We’re working with a social worker from (the Health Ministry) and it’s looking like we’ll be able to get subsidized housing. But we’re not celebrating yet. We won’t until we have a lease.”

Sam Watts is one of Canada’s foremost experts on homelessness, and he says the situation on Atwater hill is part of a “perfect storm” devastating the city’s unhoused population for over three years.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen an inflow into homelessness that’s far exceeding our outflow into housing,” said Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission. “I like to remind people that, since 2020, we’ve managed to get 300 people into apartments. Those are 300 people who no longer need emergency services. That’s great but it’s not enough.

“Right now, we’re seeing a systemic problem that’s producing more people experiencing homelessness today than we’ve ever seen before. Why is that? Well, it’s getting harder and harder to find affordable housing. Rental hikes over the past few years have made it incredibly challenging in that regard. But that’s not the whole problem.

“The people sleeping outside, the people under the highway, we have a profile of all 15 of them. These were not easy situations, they’re people with serious challenges where they require much more support than just a roof over their head. But right now, in Quebec and across Canada, resources are stretched so thin that we’re consigning them to a merry-go-round that takes them in and out of homelessness. That’s no way to treat people. If a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people, we’re getting a failing grade.”

The rise of encampments in Montreal began in 2020, when the price of renting an apartment in the city increased by 4.6 per cent — the highest jump since 2003. One camp near the port of Montreal grew to include over 100 people and dozens of tents. After a fire broke out in the encampment that summer, police cleared it out. 

Since then, the city’s growing homeless population has spread into smaller, more improvised camps further from prying eyes. The camp on Atwater hill saw dozens come and go over the years and had at least two residents die on site. Last year, Nick Bonneau’s friends found him dead from an overdose in his tent. He’d had trouble adjusting to civilian life after his time in the military and, in those final months, watched over the camp with his dog Tommy.

Nicholas Bonneau (left), was a Canadian Forces veteran who died in the encampment last year. PHOTO: Behzdad Soltani

After Bonneau died, the camp was equipped with pouches of the life-saving drug naloxone, which counteracts the effects of opioids. Over the years, the camp thwarted a series of attempts to shut it down, relocating deeper under the highway and never allowing itself to grow too big or draw too much attention to itself.

In the end, it’s Quebec’s notoriously faulty infrastructure that did the camp it in.

That trend of more improvised forms of homelessness has continued unabated and will probably get worse now that the Quebec government has announced its decision to scrap the AccèsLogis subsidized housing program.

“It used to be, you could find a roach-infested place or a boarding house for maybe $800 a month and you didn’t need references or a credit check,” said David Chapman, who runs the Resilience Montreal shelter near the Atwater hill encampment. “Now, you’re seeing the price of those places jacked up and more competition for them. All of a sudden, people need to provide a credit check, references and those aren’t easy to come by on the streets. So people grab a tent and rough it.”

Chapman was under the highway Monday and Tuesday, helping Sabrina and other residents pack their things. Only three of the dozen who remained in the camp had found temporary shelters to live in.

“One of our elderly residents, he had no choice but to find another encampment in a wooded area farther away from the resources that keep him alive,” Chapman said. “But they don’t want him at the new encampment. They’re afraid more people will attract police and get them shut down. So now he has to pack up and move again. And he’s an old man, mind you.

“Just the other day, we heard of another encampment being raided. The end result is going to be more people sleeping in more dangerous places: near a railroad, in the most abandoned of abandoned buildings, some place they can disappear and not be bothered.”

The City of Montreal doubled its budget for homelessness to $6 million last year and the Plante administration has bought up formerly industrial land to convert into social housing. Quebec meanwhile, announced $130 million in projects to help the homeless last year, including housing for women and tools to address the growing number of unhoused people off the island of Montreal.

But signs on the ground point to a population that’s likely exploded since the last homeless count was held in 2018. Since then, when Montreal’s unhoused population stood at around 3,000 people, some shelters have seen demand double. Before the pandemic, for instance, Welcome Hall offered free groceries to 6,000 people a month. Now they serve 12,000 a month, with a growing number coming from outer boroughs like Montréal-Nord, St-Michel, St-Leonard and Ahuntsic.

“Now we’re serving 12,000 and some of them need groceries several times a month. It’s been a huge challenge,” said Watts. “And those people, many of whom work full time, are living paycheque to paycheque, living in the most precarious circumstances.”

For Sabrina and Enzo, the consequences of not finding a home are unimaginable. Terrified at the prospect of losing her baby, Sabrina weaned herself off crack cocaine and alcohol. At Resilience Montreal, meanwhile, Sabrina got “the VIP treatment” — double servings of food, more attention from street workers and a comfier spot to sit and wait for her meals.

But she’s also had to carry a child for six months while living without access to a toilet or running water. When the shelter closes at night, Sabrina can’t eat warm meals or snack on anything other than a granola bar or some crackers. But even those sometimes get stolen by rats, raccoons and other vermin that plague the downtown camp.

There have been joyful moments through it all. Two months ago, Sabrina found out she was carrying a boy. Even under these less than ideal circumstances, the baby is thriving. They want to call him Ricardo.

Through my work at the Montreal Gazette and from living near Atwater Ave. for years, I’ve known Sabrina for the better part of a decade. In that time, I’ve never seen her so much as raise her voice, much less lose her temper. Even so, the streets haven’t been kind to Sabrina. In between her soft green eyes and just above a smile that rarely wanes, Sabrina’s nose juts to the right side of her face. It takes an incredibly violent blow to break a bone like that and I can’t imagine half of what Sabrina has seen in her time on the streets.

Even with mental health resources and addiction counselling, even with a subsidized apartment and help from a social worker, the road ahead will be a hard one. And that’s if Sabrina can access any of those services.

She’s determined to get in a good place before the baby arrives because she knows that when he does, it’ll be a marathon of stress and fatigue. But right now, she wants to focus on the good things.

“Little Ricky!” she said, beaming. “We want to raise him together, we want to love him and protect him. That’s our main concern. We want to give him a better life than the one we’ve had. We’re ready to work and be the best parents we can.”

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