As winter and second wave loom, homeless communities turn to outdoor camps

‘Of course we want our own place, of course we want to live a better life. But we’re also free out here.’
Christopher Curtis
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The first time Carlos Hewitson spent the night in a homeless shelter, he was awoken by the sound of a man getting beaten in his sleep.

“This guy, he just got up from his bed and started wailing on another man,” said Hewitson. “It was terrifying. It was more than terrifying. How do you dare close your eyes after that?”

Hewitson didn’t stick around the shelter system much longer.

These days he holes up with his girlfriend, Lydia Ilimasaut, in a camp just outside downtown Montreal. They’ve cleared some of the brush, set up a fireplace as a kitchen and surrounded their tents with chicken wire to ward off intruders.

Simply getting there is its own little adventure, taking us along a narrow path that teeters right on the edge of the island.

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“One wrong step and you tumble into the river,” Hewitson said as he led us into his camp Tuesday afternoon. Ilimasaut held a walking stick in one hand and a bag full of food and blankets in the other.

They’re part of a growing number of people experiencing homelessness who choose to rough it instead of live in the confines of Montreal’s shelter system. COVID-19 has upended their support network and as Quebec enters the pandemic’s second wave, its full impact likely hasn’t been felt yet.

“We’re in constant crisis mode”

Shelters have reduced their capacity to respect social distancing regulations, which may tighten further if the number of daily infections continues to surpass 500 per day in the province. Meanwhile, sources in Montreal’s network of shelters say they’re seeing new faces every day. These, they say, are the faces of people who once lived paycheque to paycheque before losing their job because of the COVID-19 recession.

Disappearing in the cracks

“We’re in constant crisis mode,” said David Chapman, who manages Resilience Montreal, a shelter on Atwater Ave. “We’re trying to keep people safe, get them food, a place to shower, a place to rest and someone to listen to them.”

Hewitson’s hideaway in the woods is tiny compared to the village of tents that dot the north side of Notre Dame St. in Montreal’s East End. The camp of about 50 people sits across the road from the Port of Montreal and serves as a visual reminder of a growing crisis in the city.

Carlos Hewitson and shelter worker David Chapman in Carlos' camp
Christopher Curtis

Last month Mayor Valérie Plante’s administration tried coaxing people out of their tents and into emergency housing, but many prefer the freedom and sense of community they feel in the streets to the growing uncertainty of a homeless shelter.

“I can understand people’s reluctance to be in shelters right now,” said Sam Watts, who runs the Welcome Hall Mission. “COVID-19 is very contagious and it’s very scary and with the weather not being so bad, it may feel much safer outside. But winter is coming and that’s no way for a human being to live.”

The Notre Dame St. camp is just one of dozens across the island, which have been seen as far north as the Metropolitan Highway and as far west as Lachine — about 15 kilometres outside downtown — according to a half dozen sources.

“Whatever crack people can find to disappear into, they’re finding it,” Chapman said. “We can either ignore that or try to make sure they have the supplies to stay alive.”

Death stalks the neighbourhood

In the cold dirt under the Ville Marie Expressway, three people worked on flattening the ground to pitch their tent Tuesday morning. They were there to join about 10 others who’ve huddled under the elevated highway to stay dry and warm at night.

“This’ll be home until we can find something better,” said one of the men. “We were on the Westmount side but people complained and we thought it would be easier down here.”

Three years ago, I interviewed a man who found his friend Marc Crainchuk’s body at the Ville Marie camp. He’d fallen asleep just hours earlier and — as temperatures dropped below zero on that damp November night — his heart stopped beating.

Two of about six tents pitched under the highway
Christopher Curtis

More reminders came this month of how dangerous street life can be for the homeless west of downtown. Death, once again, stalks the neighbourhood.

Lucy, a semi-regular at Resilience Montreal, died of an overdose earlier this month. She was 30 and grew up with a mother who drifted in and out of street life. When her mom gets out of jail later this fall, the people at the Atwater Ave. shelter will hold a memorial in her honour.

Another member of the community, Scott, overdosed that same week, according to Chapman and Scott’s friends. Though he was in his late 40s and struggled with addiction, no one I spoke to expected to see him go like that.

“But that’s the life,” said the man at the Ville Marie camp. “It breaks your heart but you have to just keep moving.”

Alice was known throughout the community for her warmth and care of younger Inuit homeless women. She died of heart disease two weeks ago.

Ricochet isn’t publishing their last names because there hasn’t been a memorial yet and it’s possible their families haven’t all been notified. And while losing people isn’t uncommon on the streets, three deaths in two weeks is something that weighs on Chapman.

“It’s devastating,” he said.

COVID exacerbates the crisis

A homeless census hasn’t been conducted since 2018, when experts and volunteers tallied over 3,100 people living on the streets. Watts says that number may be growing, as he’s seen the effects of the COVID-19 recession cascade their way down to the poorest among us.

Since the pandemic began in March, about 1,400 new people use the Welcome Hall Mission’s free grocery store each month. That’s an increase of roughly 15 per cent.

“Anecdotally, yes, more people are on the streets, taking their chances outside,” said Watts, who is working on freeing up 300 new emergency beds across the city. “Whether someone is drinking or consuming substances, we need to work on getting them a roof over their head. We can address the larger problems once that basic need is met.”

In July, the federal government announced $10 million in spending to help shelters make it through a second wave. The first federal transfer to the city was held up by Quebec for months before finally being doled out to shelters and clinics in Montreal last June.

“We don’t want the homeless to feel as though they’ve been forgotten”

The first wave spread so fast that Montreal declared a state of emergency on March 27 to free up the money necessary to get a shelter in place at the site of the old Royal Victoria Hospital. Shelters began closing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, putting hundreds at risk. The emergency measures also helped create a system where the homeless could be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined at the old hospital while awaiting their results.

This time around, the administration of Mayor Plante is set to launch three major emergency shelters before winter comes.

The old Royal Victoria Hospital, the YMCA in Hochelaga Maisonneuve and Complex Guy Favreau downtown should soon be set up to receive those in need of shelter, according to Plante spokesperson Youssef Amane. The city is also working with its transit authority, the police and shelters to patrol the streets and make sure no one is left in the cold on winter nights.

“We don’t want the homeless to feel as though they’ve been forgotten,” said Amane. “We’re finalizing our plan with the provincial government and the winter measures will come (by the end of fall).”

Another concern with a highly contagious virus and homelessness is that — in a community where sharing bottles and sleeping in confined spaces is the norm — COVID-19 could spread like wildfire.

Carlos Hewitson and Lydia Ilimasaut
Christopher Curtis

That wasn’t the case during the first wave. Watts says only five of the shelter’s hundreds of clients tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. And they were screened before they entered their dorms.

Outbreaks were also limited at the Old Brewery Mission, Resilience Montreal, Maison du Père and Mission Bonne Accueil.

“We have the bones of a plan in place and we’re ready to set up new shelters that respect social distancing,” Watts said. “I’m not convinced we’re going to be as successful because we’re headed towards the winter.

“COVID symptoms and flu symptoms are awfully similar. How do we untangle that? We probably have enough emergency beds in place but we have to be vigilant.”

Recession hits women and new arrivals hardest

Both Amane and Watts agree that the margin of error will be smaller this time around. Winter is coming and the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit expires at the end of the month. Those two factors could disrupt the entire shelter system.

“If we can do it during a pandemic, why can’t we do it year-round?”

“This recession, so far as we can see, has affected two groups in particular: women and new arrivals,” said Watts. “These are people who may have never thought they would need to rely on free groceries but it’s happened to them. We don’t know what comes next but we have to be ready for the worst.”

A silver lining emerged from Ottawa on Monday as the government announced it would spend $1 billion over the next six months buying hotels and apartment complexes to house the homeless. “What the crisis has taught us is that, when we really want to, we can put a huge dent in homelessness,” said Watts, his voice brimming with optimism. “If we can do it during a pandemic, why can’t we do it year-round?”

Over at Resilience Montreal, which is housed in an old McDonald’s restaurant, Chapman greets newcomers with a smile and hand sanitizer he squirts from a ketchup bottle. The smell of burgers wafts across the shelter as Marvin Gaye’s "Heard it Through the Grapevine" crackles from a PA system.

When the pandemic broke out, Resilience had to move its services across the street to Cabot Square, serving food, handing out clothing and giving medical care to people in the downtown park. The city shut those services down once COVID-19 came under control last month.

These days, the shelter is living off a sort of hybrid model. People file in, grab food and hang out in the courtyard or nap upstairs if they need a break from the streets.

There are no more indoor showers but workers at Resilience built an outdoor contraption that sprays hot water in the privacy of a vinyl tool shed. A woman walked through the door Tuesday with a towel covering her torso and one wrapped snugly around her hair.

“Alright, who’s next?” Chapman yells.

Upstairs, people slept on yoga mats separated by plexiglass dividers and one woman teased Chapman about Resilience’s lunch menu.

“When are we getting hot dogs for chrissake,” she yelled, eliciting a chorus of laughter. “Just kidding! Love you, David.”

Chapman says he has no idea what the shelter will do if a second wave leads to stricter social distancing guidelines. They’ve tried to convince the city to lend them an army tent and propane heaters to move back outside but negotiations are stalling.

Hewitson has lived in the woods southwest of the city for four years. Winters have come and gone and he’s been able to stay healthy and alive. But he knows it isn’t a practical long-term plan. Like so many of the people who end up here, he’s a survivor. A history of violence and trauma led him down the path of addiction but he fights every day to find his own quiet, peaceful moments. Even so, the set of skills and lessons he’s learned on the streets aren’t something he wishes on anyone else.

“My girlfriend, her kids want to move back to the city and this isn’t a place for them,” he said. “Of course we want our own place, of course we want to live a better life. But we’re also free out here and we aren’t bothering anyone.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for Curtis’ weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
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