A civilized and modern society is measured by how well it cares for the most vulnerable and marginalized. That includes people experiencing homelessness.

Raphaël “Napa” André died alone in January during a curfew, huddled inside a portable toilet near a closed shelter he used to frequent. It’s a sad example of the absurdity of some of the government’s pandemic measures, which have used COVID-19 as a pretext to flout human rights. In February, the city of Montreal boarded up the benches in the Bonaventure metro station, where people experiencing homelessness used to go. It was a way to exclude them from a safe space where they could gather, something all the more necessary considering the frequent changes in the services offered by shelters (locations, hours, facilities) since the beginning of this crisis. And I haven’t even mentioned the fiasco of the Notre-Dame tent camp. Dismantled by police last December, it may face the same fate this year.

This is all just further proof that public safety and policing is not the solution to social or public health issues. Clearly, when it comes to homelessness, Mayor Valérie Plante is no longer the “man for the job,” as she claimed to be during the 2017 election campaign.

The four types of homelessness

We think homeless people don’t feel pain. We think they don’t feel anything when they are waiting for their “pusher” at the door. And yet. The reality of homelessness is multifaceted and complex.

In a paper entitled “The Canadian Definition of Homelessness,” the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness offers a four-part typology:

  1. People who are homeless on the street (the most visible form),
  2. people in emergency shelters,
  3. people who are temporarily housed, and
  4. people at risk of homelessness — that is, people living in substandard housing that does not meet health, sanitation and safety standards.

Homelessness is fluid, not static, and an individual may gravitate cyclically between these various forms.

It is also important to note that homelessness among women is often better hidden. Women use various strategies to avoid the gender-based violence that happens on the streets and that they have often fled in their own lives. This includes attention to clothing and presentation to avoid “looking homeless,” and killing time wandering around shopping malls.

We must think of the homeless as also having a right to the city.

When it comes to women experiencing homelessness, many have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and so on, to the extent that some may have what seems like the entire DSM-IV on their medical file. And yet, all I see in their reactions are survival strategies in a world hostile to their existence. Anything less would be a surprise. This is known as the psychologization of suffering, and even as violence against women, in the jargon of feminist research. Women who have survived sexual violence. Women who have dropped out of school. Businesswomen who experienced an episode of mental illness that cost them everything. No one is immune to homelessness, even if some people have more risk factors than others.

Due to the instability and shifting nature of the homeless population in Montreal, it is hard to know how to get an accurate and precise count of homeless people. But we know immigrants and Indigenous people are overrepresented among the most visible faces of homelessness.

A complex process of social exclusion

Why do some people find themselves homeless? In large part because of the cracking and crumbling of our social safety net. Many people experiencing homelessness are young adults from the youth protection system who were victims of severe abuse and neglect as children. Some are simply unable to find housing (thanks to unaffordable rents), feed themselves or obtain a decent income to live on.
We must think of the homeless as also having a right to the city: that is, the right to occupy public space and exist in the city, as explained on the website of the Réseau des personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal.

When I worked with women experiencing homelessness for a few years, we saw women who returned to shelters week after week. Many of them were going around to all the shelters in the city because they could not stay in one indefinitely. Women circling the drain because they can’t find a healthy place to live, because they have no resources, no support, no empathy, no care, no space. Women who sometimes get angry in the middle of a crowded dining room, but I don’t mind because they are right to be pissed off at the system.

“We are on the street! Where do you want us to go when we have no home, no family and the shelters are closed?”

Anger is, in my opinion, the manifestation of a pain that is legitimate. It is the rallying cry of those who have chosen not to remain “victims,” in the pejorative sense of the word. Sometimes in life, when you have been spat on — literally and figuratively — since the day you were born, the pain boils over. These people deserve dignity and respect, rather than to be treated like undesirables whom we’d rather not have to look at, when they have nowhere else to go.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

You have to be quite resourceful to survive on the streets. Especially in the context of a pandemic. Particularly when the only payments accepted by stores are VISA and Interac.

People experiencing homelessness are in a very unstable situation. Many do not have a fixed address, let alone a bank account or ATM card. It takes a real effort in times of crisis to avoid band-aid approaches that do nothing to stop the bleeding of homelessness. The Métro newspaper found that the City of Montreal will allocate exactly the same amount of money to the fight against homelessness as it did before the pandemic. A timid approach to solving a crisis within a crisis.

The words of a woman experiencing homelessness, interviewed on Radio-Canada a few months ago, in the middle of winter, come to mind. “We are on the street! Where do you want us to go when we have no home, no family and the shelters are closed?”