When city officials decided to revamp the notoriously drug-ridden Place Émilie-Gamelin in the center of downtown Montreal, they didn’t push out the many homeless people and addicts who live in the park. Instead, they made the park a focal point for the city's efforts to socially integrate for the homeless.
Along with housing and job assistance for the homeless, Montreal has encouraged a philosophy of what city officials call “social inclusion” to bring the homeless into the broader society—a policy that started under former Mayor Denis Coderre and has continued under current Mayor Valérie Plante. In March she announced a three-year, $6 million plan to address homelessness.
On a recent sunny summer afternoon in Émilie-Gamelin, people sat at picnic benches, listening to a concert and watching families play ping-pong in the park plaza. Among them was Paul, a well-groomed man dressed in gym attire. “I was just passing by. I like being here because there’s so much going on,” said Paul, who didn’t want to give his full name. He’s 50 and a Montreal native. Paul is one of the homeless people who stay at Émilie-Gamelin. He ended up on the streets, he said, because of addiction.
In a city of 1.75 million, advocates estimate Montreal’s homeless population at about 15–20,000 people based on point-in-time counts. They say the inclusion approach is based on the radical idea that the homeless aren’t just a public relations or services problem to be fixed: They’re members of the larger community. And social inclusion of homeless people can start with small gestures, such as other city residents acknowledging their shared humanity.
“It’s a significant element that the previous and the current administration both subscribe to, and that is to think of homeless people as fellow citizens first—not pariahs and not to be left in exclusion, but to find ways to bring people back into society and reduce the conflict that often exists… between homeless and non-homeless people,” said Matthew Pearce, president and chief executive officer of the Old Brewery Mission, the city’s largest nonprofit organization focused on the homeless.
The outreach is especially important for Canada’s most marginalized groups. The city hosted workshops in Cabot Square on the west side of Montreal this summer that showcased the artistry of the homeless indigenous community living near the plaza. A collaboration between city planners and the homeless who were being pushed out by new luxury condo development in the area, the workshops featured homeless Inuit artisans carving stone and teaching participants about their indigenous cultures.
“[The planners] tried to figure out, ‘Well, what can we do to make sure you still have your community space?’,” said Adrienne Campbell, director of the nonprofit Projets Autochtones du Québec, which helps indigenous Canadians find shelter and services. “It’s great for the people themselves who are homeless but it’s also fantastic for building bridges with the public, who are getting to learn from the homeless. It brings a positive cultural space where normally their culture is pushed to the side.”
The effect of the social inclusion programming has yielded noticeable dividends, Campbell said. “People are more respectful when they’re in the park space. The people who are homeless participate more in the activities so that’s been really positive,” she said.
“That social interaction is so important,” said Rosannie Filato, a city councilor and member of the executive committee responsible for homelessness policy. “We have to consider them our neighbors,” with “a smile and that ‘Hello, how are you?’”
This way of thinking about the homeless is a shift from previous strategy focused on solely meeting basic needs, Pearce said. “It certainly was the way in Montreal in the past—and the Old Brewery Mission itself was a part of that. A sense that… we’re talking about lost souls. We ought not to have too much in the way of aspirations for their future. Just give them a bed, a meal—that’s the best you can imagine.”
They rethought that vision at the Mission, he said. “Before we condemn people to a life of homelessness… we have to believe in them and see if that belief in them is well-founded, rather than assuming from the start that there’s no hope.”
The programs at Place Émilie-Gamelin have helped foster a special dynamic between different communities, according to Melodie Cordeaux, whose nonprofit group Société de Développement Social took up residency in a small wooden kiosk for the summer to offer services and support to anyone in need who wandered by. She says she is a former addict herself and was once homeless as well. “I think it's necessary for both sides to use the space. I think it's really great that there's some families playing there as there's homeless people sleeping or resting,” said Cordeaux. “There is a certain harmony.”
But some believe that the city’s agenda for inclusion is undermined by pervasive discrimination. Fadhi Darag, a 61-year-old homeless man in Émilie-Gamelin, said he suspects he’s been harassed by Montreal police repeatedly because he’s black. “It seems to me nothing changed,” Darag said. “They give you a ticket for sleeping in the street, and they gave me two times the tickets. It’s black discrimination and it’s racist.”
Montreal police recently increased training on working with the homeless after the police fatally shot a homeless man near the Old Brewery Mission in January 2017, claiming he lunged at them with a knife. Filato, the city councilor, acknowledged a need to develop more humane policing.
“Security is for sure a priority for the administration, but at the same time there can't be different policies for those who are homeless on a bench or somebody else who is sitting on a bench.” Filato said the city administration is exploring a non-emergency hotline to report situations with the homeless without automatically triggering police response.
While there remains work to do, activists believe the city has made great strides. “We have a really great grassroots community and openness from the city,” Campbell said.
“There’s also a lot of horrible factors that need to be addressed, like prostitution, human trafficking, indigenous women—those are gigantic issues,” she added. “But all these things that promote social inclusion and positive community are helpful in combating those other areas. Ultimately you need the political will and a mayor who is going to champion that and say ‘No, no, we are not going to treat homeless people badly and we’re not going to push them away.’”
For Paul, on a warm August afternoon in Place Émilie-Gamelin, it was working. “I’m sitting here and I’m looking around,” he said, his face tilted up at the sun. “And I just feel like I’m a part of the city.”