Chantal Savard, who is Mi’kmaq, feels the weight of generational and personal trauma. Years of addiction have led her to a life on Montreal’s streets. After seven years, she says she got used to feeling invisible. Then, something changed.
“Before I was no one, now I feel like someone,” says Savard about her relationship with Montreal’s Comm-un Collective, a meeting place and a lifeline for many of the city’s unhoused community.
Savard is a regular fixture at the Collective, where she spends her days. She welcomes visitors with a big smile, many of whom she knows by name, and more often than not, it’s followed by an invitation to join her in the backyard for a smoke. Conversations range from her personal life story, updates about her adult children, local gossip, and the challenges of being unhoused.
She is one of the 3,000 unhoused people living in Montreal, according to a 2018 survey (a census is currently being conducted by the City to provide more updated numbers).
That number does not reflect the pandemic, which put a strain on already scarce human and financial resources; the housing crisis, rising inequality and inflation, which continue to make things worse. And, in a city that is already struggling to meet the needs of its unhoused citizens, the comparatively small neighbourhood of Milton Park, nestled between downtown Montreal and the Mount Royal Park, and is a favored spot by Indigenous and Metis people, seems to be facing the brunt of it.
Unhoused people in the area are routinely ignored or harassed and, as years go by without any marked improvement in the situation, they have to deal with increasing discontent from local residents and business owners.
For Savard, her life changed when one night, a couple of years ago, a social worker approached her on the street; instead of a quick check-in before moving on, he sat next to her and shared a drink. This marked the beginning of a long-lasting friendship with Jonathan Lebire, director of the new collective Comm-un, which opened in 2022 and aims to support the unhoused population of Milton Park.
Comm-un is, in many ways, a culmination and consequence of Lebire’s own experiences.
Lebire grew up in a middle-class family in a house in the suburbs, but in his teens, a sudden move to a different neighborhood left him vulnerable to a drug addiction. The relationship with his parents suffered as a result. Finally, armed with a backpack and $20, he ran away to Montreal, where he spent years in the street. Eventually, with the support of his father and a dedicated social worker, he managed to quit his addiction and pursue an education and career in social work. His experience in the field led him to become disillusioned with the system and motivated to come up with his own solution.
“The way the system works, everything needs to be compartmentalized. And everyone working in homelessness needs to be objective, follow the rules and work in silos,” he says. He stresses that no individual person is to blame, but rather a system and set of policies. As a consequence, he adds, many people, whose experiences and needs are not understood, “end up on the street, where they are shouted at by residents or [criminalized by] the police, simply because they have fallen through the cracks.”
“Comm-un, it’s a collective,” he says. “But it’s also a desire to change the way we see things, to adopt a bottom-up or grassroot approach. It’s about understanding the story of all those who are involved in homelessness. And it’s about trying, through this holistic understanding, to offer services that are better connected, clearer and more efficient.”
The goal is to support the person as a whole. Lebire believes that, as a social issue, “homelessness doesn’t exist.” What exists, he says, are a series of social, economic and health issues that can lead to someone being forced to live on the streets. As a result, “the most important thing [when approaching homelessness] should be healing.”
In practice, this means collaborating with social workers to support the individuals who are part of Comm-un’s network, such as planning outings for the unhoused residents of the neighborhood, organizing community outreach events, and the ongoing work of mediation between the unhoused population and the neighborhood business owners and residents. All the while keeping a door always open for any unhoused individuals who would like to enjoy some quiet time or work on personal projects.
A critical situation
Lebire hopes his approach might strengthen the community, in a neighborhood where the concept of “cohabitation” — a term used by experts to represent the successful inclusion of unhoused people in the community — is being stretched to its limits.
The 2022 report "Do Not Look Away," by Nadine Mailloux, Montreal Ombudsman, found that the situation in the neighborhood was “critical.” Her investigation was the result of numerous complaints by local residents, citing “physical and sexual aggressions, prostitution, drug use, and the exploitation of homeless people by drug dealers and pimps.”
The report highlighted the various obstacles unhoused people in the neighborhood face. Safety issues are prominent, and include danger from passing vehicles (in 2020, four vehicle crashes were reported to Montreal Police), the risk of sexual exploitation and violence, and the ongoing possibility of criminalization by police. Women face high risks of harassment, both on the street and in mixed shelters.
And there is the ubiquitous problem of housing: shelters are scarce, often lacking in terms of infrastructure and services, and getting access to transition accommodations is daunting.
“We are really a last resort,” says Zoé Dubois-Capony, the shelter coordinator at Open Door. “We have many people who aren’t allowed in any other shelter. Even when we are at full capacity, we are told by the police that we have no choice but to take that person in, as they cannot go anywhere else.”
Located in the basement of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette Church, Open Door is a low-barrier shelter, which means that it accepts people with addiction problems or in a state of intoxication, who would not be let in in the majority of the city shelters.
Initially designed as a day centre, it was converted to a 24-hour shelter during the pandemic, with 45 beds (75 per cent of which are reserved to Inuit and First Nations people) and an average of 177 people who come through daily.
However, some residents, such as Danielle Rousseau, feel that the neighbourhood has deteriorated since the shelter moved there in 2018 (it was previously in a different location in the city — Square Cabot).
“In our naivety, we [the local community] never thought it would bring a series of problems,” she says, pointing to drug dealers targeting the homeless population and intoxicated people sleeping in doorways. She says some local businesses have lost customers.
“We are not against homeless people. It’s everything around it — it’s the criminality,” she says.
Rousseau, who is on the board of the coop housing syndicate Communaté Milton Parc, representing businesses and residents in the area, and who co-founded the neighborhood committee for “safety, salubrity and criminality,” says the community is working with the shelter to try and find solutions, but it’s not always easy. “We have realized that, at Open Door, they are overwhelmed and they don’t have the resources to face all the issues that surround the phenomenon of homelessness,” she says.
Dubois-Capony, shelter coordinator at Open Door, agrees. “We are missing resources at every level,” she says. She wishes they could hire additional staff, and improve the quality of the many services they offer.
Josefina Blanco, City Councillor for Project Montreal, says that“community organisations are basically accomplishing miracles with very few financial resources [...] and a labour shortage.”
Open Door faces an additional challenge, as it deals with non-optimal spaces — the basement where it’s located has no windows and no aeration system, the narrow staircase contributes to a claustrophobic feeling, as do the street-level locked gates that prevent anyone from entering the church that owns the space. Also, the kitchen, which provides three meals a day, could do with an upgrade.
Little has changed
The Ombudsman ended her analysis with a series of five recommendations for the City of Montreal, from increasing the number of shelters to creating more stable and long-term funding streams to developing channels for communication and the representation of unhoused people.
Unfortunately, little seems to have changed.
Following the publication of the report, the neighborhood made headlines this summer because many in the community demanded the removal of a fence erected around a vacant lot at the corner between Milton Street and Parc Avenue. Many in the community tried to keep the space accessible for unhoused people — a parking lot that has long been a gathering place for those experiencing homelessness in the area.
More recently, last month at a “solidarity gathering for homelessness” organized by Comm-un, residents voiced their discontent with the status quo, the ongoing safety concerns, and the perceived lack of action from the city.
The city says the solution must involve many parties, including community organisations and experts, the provincial and federal governments, residents, business owners, and Indigenous communities. “The city can take on a leadership role to ensure that everyone who must be around the table is present,” says Blanco.
One action they implemented, based on the Ombudsman’s report, is an ad-hoc committee, to “offer a space in which citizens, merchants and representatives for homeless people from Milton Park can engage in a reflection on how to improve cohabitation.” It was however criticized for the absence of homeless people.
Another recommendation that the Ombudsman made concerns the city’s support of the Inuit community, which is overrepresented among unhoused people. Indeed, while Inuit people only make up five per cent of Montreal’s population, they account for a quarter of the unhoused population, a report from the city regional public health department has shown. As a solution, Mailloux’s report recommends supporting existing Indigenous-led initiatives and creating new ones.
When it comes to funding, Blanco notes that the city is “aware that it is important for community organizations to have more previsibility in terms of medium and long-term funding” and is prioritizing multi-year grants.
A holistic solution
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that, currently, efforts to support the welfare of unhoused people should focus on what the person requires as a whole, or, as Lebire, says, on healing.
Lebire believes so strongly in the necessity of this new integrated approach, that he is, essentially, volunteering, since Comm-un doesn’t have the budget to support his wage.
He is, however, exploring different funding avenues to support the not-for-profit operations and to pursue new ambitious projects, including the opening of a day recreation centre.
Savard has also joined in this adventure, working as the office concierge of Comm-Un. A recent trip to Kahnawá:ke, organised by Comm-un, gave her the chance to connect with Indigenous elders and healers. This enriching experience has helped her through recent setbacks, including temporarily losing her bed at the PAQ shelter where she lives. This work is, she hopes, the first step in a path to getting her own apartment, full-time job training, and time to help other people experiencing homelessness.
A community working together
Other neighborhoods in the city have come together against shelters. The most recent example concerns a shelter in Chinatown, set to close soon as a result of the complaints from some residents.
However, while the issues are far from being solved, Lebire is convinced that Milton Park, a neighborhood renowned for its social activism and strong coop network, has the potential to succeed.
Comm-un’s picnic table, he believes, is one example. On one summer afternoon, Saila Kelly, who is Inuit and lives on the street, is carving a bear in soapstone in Comm-un’s backyard, and says he hopes to sell it to a museum. As Lebire chats with social workers from Open Door and members of his board, another local, Charlotte Shecapio, who is staying at Open Door, has come by to ask for help with a cheque and to be complimented on a new outfit. Inside, Savard is drinking a cup of tea and enjoying some quiet.