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Homelessness in the West Island? It's 'in every borough'

Article et photo de Montreal Gazette. Lire l'article en ligne



"We’re on the front lines, we’re the social safety net for the province right now, and we’ve been saying for years there’s a housing crisis.”


“I can honestly say this place saved my life,” says Michael McGillis, right, in his shared room at Ricochet, an emergency shelter and transition home in Pierrefonds. Most nights, Ricochet has to turn people away, says general director Tania Charron, left. They’re driven to other shelters in Montreal or they sleep in one of the West Island’s many wooded areas.


“It’s nothing personal,” Michael McGillis told the customs and immigration officer at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. “But I’m going to have to hit you.”


McGillis, an amiable bear of a man in his early 60s, had just been sent back to his native Canada after living 49 years in Florida, the last seven months in a U.S. immigration detention facility. Now, on a frigid day in April 2021 in just a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans and with no money, family or friends, McGillis figured his options were few if he didn’t want to freeze to death. At least prison was heated. And they supplied food.


The immigration official was kind, told him that wouldn’t be necessary, and called over a police officer who spent hours on the phone until he found McGillis a spot at the Ricochet Centre emergency shelter and transition home in Pierrefonds, not far from where he’d grown up.

For the first time in a long time, McGillis had gotten lucky.


Ricochet had just opened a few months before after a decade of pleading by community organizations for a multipurpose emergency shelter in the West Island. It’s the only one between St-Henri, near downtown Montreal, and Vaudreuil — a stretch of 42 kilometres.

“It took a pandemic to get this place to open,” said general director Tania Charron. “Because no one believed there was homelessness in the West Island. No-bo-dy.”


Located in a health services building that sat empty for five years, Ricochet was only supposed to be a warming shelter. But from the start visitors said they needed a place to sleep, so employees scrounged up beds.


Three years later, Ricochet has 50 of them, most of them full. Half are bunk beds in the emergency shelter section for overnight stays, the rest transitional beds in shared rooms for people like McGillis looking for a home. Most nights, Ricochet has to turn people away, Charron said. They’re driven to other shelters in Montreal. Or they sleep in one of the West Island’s many wooded areas.


McGillis was supposed to stay a few months. He’s been there for more than a year and a half because there’s nowhere else to go. With few lodging options in Montreal (“It’s not easy paying $1,300 for a one-bedroom when your social assistance cheque is $726,” Charron notes), Ricochet has transitioned people to residences as far away as Magog in the Eastern Townships.


Despite the constant need, Ricochet remains bare bones, its future uncertain. It depends on donations from food banks, churches, supermarkets and Starbucks to feed residents. The refuge provides three meals a day prepared in a kitchen the size of a bathroom that lacks a proper stove. Due to limited funds, only two staffers work overnight, overseeing 50 men and women, some with mental health or addiction issues.


Ricochet has to move by April because the health ministry needs the building. With three months left, Charron is still working on finding a new location. And ensuring their annual funding of $2 million, mostly used to pay the 30 employees, will be renewed.

Bare bones it may be, but for people like McGillis struggling through the lowest point of their existence, places like Ricochet are critical.


“I can honestly say this place saved my life,” he said.


McGillis’s plight, and Ricochet’s, are emblematic of the spread of homelessness in Montreal and the city’s inability to create lasting solutions.


Once a phenomenon mostly visible in the downtown core, the proliferation of tent camps in places like Notre Dame St. E., under the Ville-Marie Expressway and beneath highway overpasses in Dorval, or of the unhoused living in the streets of Verdun and Lachine, give proof to the statistics showing homelessness increased by nearly 50 per cent in Quebec in four years, and more than 33 per cent in Montreal, from 2018 to 2022. The number of tents in encampments in downtown Ville-Marie jumped from 105 in 2021 to 248 in 2022, Radio-Canada reported. In 2023, that number rose to 420, a La Presse investigation found.


“Homelessness is not just downtown anymore, and it’s not even just Montreal anymore,” said Old Brewery Mission director James Hughes. “It’s in Gatineau, in Trois-Rivières, in the Laurentians.


“In Montreal, it’s in every borough.”


The pandemic increased the unhoused population by cutting jobs and ending relationships, by ratcheting stresses that spurred alcohol and drug use and intensified mental health issues. Rising costs brought on by inflation and rent increases amid a shrinking housing market made things even worse.


In the 2022 one-day visible count of the unhoused population organized by Quebec’s public health institute (INSPQ), eviction was the reason most often cited by respondents for why they found themselves without a dwelling. Problems linked to drug and alcohol consumption came second, followed by insufficient revenue, relationship conflicts and mental health issues. Tenants’ rights group RCLALQ noted the number of forced evictions in Quebec reported to its organizations more than doubled between July 2022 and June 2023 compared to the previous year.


“When you’re in a situation where rents have risen 26 per cent in three years but revenues have remained the same, you end up with people living in forests, or 16 people sharing a three-and-a-half,” said Benoit Langevin, who founded the West Island Youth Action community organization in 2007 to keep young people off the streets, sowing the seeds for Ricochet’s creation.


Now a city councillor and homelessness critic for opposition party Ensemble Montréal, Langevin says solutions are hampered by the fact the dossier is being handled by dozens of community non-profits, government bodies and foundations that are well-intentioned but lack a co-ordinated strategy to collect data or track those in need. Montreal had 38 emergency shelters running in the winter of 2022, he noted, half of which expel their clients during the day due to a lack of staff. It has no concerted data on how many tent camps are in its boroughs.


“What we absolutely need is a 10-year vision on how the infrastructures are going to be co-ordinated,” Langevin said. “The role of a city is supposed to be to work as a quarterback. But all we hear is ‘It’s Quebec’s fault.’”


Many North American jurisdictions are experiencing a similar rise, and Quebec’s rate of visible homelessness (120 per 100,000 inhabitants) is similar to Ontario’s (139), and better than Alberta’s (228) and British Columbia’s (189).


But the successes of Finland, with a visible homelessness rate of 20 people per 100,000 inhabitants, and Houston, Texas, which has seen its homelessness rate drop by 60 per cent in a decade, prove there’s a better way.


For 20 months, McGillis’s home has consisted of one half of a cramped shared room containing a bed, night table and two lockers for all his possessions.


“It’s got its ups and downs, living here, but I’ve got to change my way of thinking,” he said in his soft Floridian drawl, handing out peanuts to the squirrels who come to him on Ricochet’s covered terrace. (One’s named One-Eye Jack, two are Rocky because they like to fight, and another he calls Mike “because he’s fat like me.”)


“I have a safe place, a shower, food. It’s really a great program. It’s helping a lot of people.”


Some days, though, his change in fortunes are still hard to endure.


McGillis worked as a unionized carpenter in Florida, running a crew installing crown mouldings and wood trim in the homes of millionaires and billionaires. Then layoffs and a heart attack at age 49 that left him briefly clinically dead meant he was unable to meet his mortgage and truck payments, and ended his marriage. Driving with a suspended licence earned him two years in jail, then a transfer to the immigration detention centre and deportation. McGillis isn’t bitter, however. He figures it saved his life.


“I’ve been drinking since I was 12 years old, and it was getting out of line,” he said. “I haven’t touched a drop since the night I was arrested.”


He feels the urge now and again, “but then I see someone else f—ing up on it, and it goes away.”


Ricochet gave him a temporary home.


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