As a polar vortex grips Montreal this week, the Ross Pavilion at the former Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) opened its doors on Jan. 15 as an overflow homeless shelter. Spearheaded by four Montreal homeless missions—Old Brewery Mission, Welcome Hall Mission, La Maison du Père and Accueil Bonneau—this temporary shelter will accommodate up to 80 people on cots provided by the Canadian Red Cross. Visitors are also welcome to bring their pets. and the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) will be available to care for animals. Matthew Pearce, chief executive officer (CEO) and president of the Old Brewery Mission, described the overcrowding that plagues Montreal shelters during these frigid winter nights.
“We have tried to accommodate the increased demand once our beds are full by letting people in anyways,” Pearce said. “We let them come in and put them wherever we can in hallways, inside the cafeteria, sleeping on the floor. We did that to avoid people dying outside, but we found it very arduous. It was exhausting for the staff, and it was unhygienic. It was undignified and inhumane.”
Sam Watts, CEO and executive director of Welcome Hall Mission, explained that the four organizations proposed an overflow facility downtown as an ideal solution to the lack of space.
“We said to ourselves, ‘what if there was a facility somewhere in the downtown core that was heated and we can put beds in and that would have washrooms?’” Watts said. “If somebody can provide that for us, then we can very quickly turn around and make something happen for the needs that exist here in the city.”
When the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services granted the space at the former RVH to meet the demands of the collaborating organizations, both the provincial and municipal governments agreed to fund the $228,000 project. The funds will go toward the general maintenance of the shelter, such as the cleaning services that Maison du Père will be responsible for and the day-to-day management provided by the Welcome Hall Mission. On Jan. 17, the shelter invited in the media, with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante in attendance to comment on the importance of the project.
“We take this situation seriously,” Plante said. “No one should be outside right now in the cold. Everybody deserves a roof.”
The new shelter, which will be open every night of the week from 9 p.m to 7 a.m., will serve strictly as a facility to sleep in. A shuttle bus provided by the Old Brewery Mission will take clients from homeless day centres up to RVH. In the morning, the shuttles will take clients to Accueil Bonneau where they will be served breakfast.
Pearce emphasized the inclusivity of the new shelter for homeless from all backgrounds.
“It is open to men and women, indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples,” Pearce said. “It is open to transgender people. It is open to homeless people with pets. So, it is trying to catch all, including the people who don’t fit easily into the existing services.”
Pearce estimates that 12,000 Montreal residents experience homelessness each year. For 75 to 80 per cent of this population, homelessness is only temporary.
“The really problematic part of the equation is much smaller,” Pearce said. “It is only about 10 per cent that are chronically homeless, but, in a city like Montreal, we should be able to manage them. We should be able to get them housed.”
Watts urges those who want to make an impact on homelessness to support the organizations that have the resources to help them find permanent housing solutions. He believes that there are better ways to help the homeless than giving out spare change.
“I hate speaking against basic human kindness because human kindness is something we all need,” Watts said. “But we are not helping by giving them a blanket because I don’t want him to stay on the street with a blanket. It’s not going to help [….] The real help the public can provide is to help fund the organizations that are trying to help people get out of those situations, and that’s what we encourage.”