Discussing homelessness in Montreal: during the pandemic and beyond

Published: June 28, 2023

by Maïa Dakessian, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t enough for the government to simply say “it’s going to be okay”.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing policies were put in place to limit the spread of the virus and protect the population, especially the most vulnerable. On the other hand, physical distancing had a negative impact on the mental health of many people. For example, without a home to call their own, social distancing policies have made the situation even worse for the homeless. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t enough for the government to simply say “it’s going to be okay”.

Social distancing policies were not adapted to all populations. Indeed, people living in precarious conditions or in homelessness faced a number of difficulties in this respect. For example, at the start of the pandemic, many assistance centers reduced the number of places available, or even closed their doors. This also increased the vulnerability of people with addictions.

With the 2-meter distancing restriction and almost deserted streets, the rate of mendicancy during the pandemic dropped significantly. What’s more, many homeless people were unable to obtain a mask, or didn’t understand the importance of putting one on. So, with little cash on hand — and a decline in the number of local cafés and businesses that continued to accept cash as a form of payment — and the difficulty of accessing places that required people to wear masks, homeless people had great difficulty obtaining food or other necessities.

The pandemic added yet another constraint to an already unbearable homelessness situation. In fact, it amplified the uncertainties that the homeless already face on a daily basis. How does one find out what the new opening hours of the day center are? How does one know if a bed will be available? Have eligibility criteria changed?

In 2020, emergency and support services in Montreal provided only essential services such as meals, a bed and access to hot water. As a result, day centers for the homeless no longer offered social activities.

Supporting the houseless community

In Montreal, certain measures were adopted to help houseless people during the pandemic. In particular, the opening of three emergency shelter sites made it possible to accommodate a decent number of people until March 2021. However, this was not enough given the harsh Quebec winter and the doubling of the number of houseless people in Montreal in 2020 compared to 2019. In addition, shelters require large amounts of funding to provide services. For example, a $15,000 grant to La Rue des femmes, an organization that supports homeless women, only kept 10 additional beds open during the winter.

How can we effectively count the number of houseless people to implement better measures in the long term? Those who are counted are usually those who visit drop-in centers or those who use emergency shelters. This does not include the many others who may be more discreet.

During the pandemic, the Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal urged “the three levels of government to coordinate support measures without delay to ensure that the social safety net that protects homeless people can withstand this crisis.” Financial support from our governments is necessary so that community organizations can continue to carry out their mission to help the houseless. Towards Home is a national strategy to reduce chronic houselessness in Canada by 50% by the fiscal year 2027–2028. The provincial and federal governments have entered into an agreement to financially support this at-risk population by providing medical and mental health services, for instance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to a variety of issues. Houselessness is often a topic that is left out of the discussion, but it is high time that concrete action is taken in the long term; pandemic or not. We have a commitment to our society. If not to solve the problem of houselessness, then to recognize and discuss this reality and the issues associated with it.