Quebec Premier François Legault says no exemption from the province’s mandatory overnight curfew will be given to people who really are homeless, despite calls to do so from advocates and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.
In a news conference Tuesday, Legault said he’s concerned an official exemption could encourage people to “pretend” to be homeless.
He said police forces have already been told to use their judgment when it comes to fining homeless people and said he fully trusts they are being fair.
“Right now, the police are doing a very good job,” said Legault. “They’re using their judgment and if we change the rule and say ‘you cannot give tickets to somebody who says they are homeless,’ you may have some people that will pretend to be homeless.”
Legault was responding to calls made by Plante earlier today. She said the curfew has added unnecessary stress to already struggling homeless shelters in the city.
“The [curfew] has a direct impact on the homeless ecosystem, both on those who are homeless and on those who work with them,” said Plante.
“I want people to feel safe in Montreal. I don’t want to exacerbate their vulnerability.”
Plante’s pleas come just days after the death of Raphaël André, a homeless Innu man whose body was discovered in a portable toilet in the Plateau, Sunday morning.
André, 51, had spent Saturday evening at The Open Door, a Montreal drop-in centre just steps away from where his body was found, but couldn’t stay as the shelter was forced to close at 9:30 p.m. following an outbreak of COVID-19 last month. It used to be open 24/7.
“Like many Montrealers, I’m deeply shocked by what happened to Raphaël André,” Plante said.
Plante claims the city offered to work with the shelter from the start, and was willing to help build extra walls to better separate clients. It offered to help get the shelter larger cleaning crews.
But according to John Tessier, an intervention worker at the Open Door, that simply isn’t true.
Tessier says the shelter added physical barriers to the shelter, hired extra security and implemented new measures to make sure clients could keep two metres apart weeks ago, but he says public health officials have yet to respond to their calls and emails and to give the green light to reopen the shelter at night.
“We’ve invited them in to come see what’s been done. We’ve sent them pictures and we’ve had no response to any of that,” said Tessier.
“The fact that somebody passed away within a stone’s throw from our building is traumatic, it’s disheartening and if it was up to us, we would just stay open right now.”
In a statement, the CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal said it had provided the Open Door with training sessions on public health regulations last month. The regional health authority said it will continue to work with the centre so that it can reopen at night.
“We are happy that the Board of directors of the Open Door has decided to take a few weeks to implement these measures before opening again at night,” the statement says. “The CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, [Montreal Public Health] and the Service régional de l’itinérance will continue to assist the organization during that period.”
Mourning a ‘good friend’
Annisee Papialuk has been a client at the Open Door for some 13 years now. For her, the shelter’s overnight closure coinciding with the province’s mandatory curfew has been next to impossible to navigate.
“When it closes down during the night, it’s really hard for us to find a place. We end up sleeping on the street and workers kick us out so it’s hard,” said Papialuk.
“If there was a place for us homeless people, I would love to go.”
André was a friend of Papialuk’s and she says her anxiety over staying in the streets at night has been worse since his death.
“He was a good friend, a tender man, never argued with anybody. He didn’t deserve to be seen like that,” she said.
Legault unrealistic about police, advocates say
Upon hearing Legault’s claims that police forces have been acting fairly in giving out the curfew fines, Jessica Quijano, co-ordinator of the Iskweu project at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, grew frustrated.
“That’s just not the reality. … Police do not have a positive relationship with the homeless community,” said Quijano.
Quijano said Montreal’s homeless population already deals with racial profiling on a regular basis and the introduction of this curfew has only made matters worse.
She said the city and province have both been too slow to provide homeless people with the resources they need during the pandemic, and she says André’s death last weekend is just one example of that.
“We warned public health. We warned the mayor. We knew people would die,” said Quijano.
“The non-action is sending a message that those people’s lives don’t matter.”
More shelter spaces coming, Plante says
Plante said that while the city and province have added hundreds of beds in homeless shelters in recent months, there is still work to be done.
“There are a lot of beds but there are nights where there are no beds, so we need to work to create more options,” Plante said.
“I want people to have access to a bed, a place where it’s warm, where there’s food, where there’s services for them.”
Plante said the city will be announcing the addition of 100 more beds in the next few days.