Montreal authorities clear out east end homeless camp over safety concerns
By Sidhartha Banerjee
(CP) MONTREAL – City officials continued dismantling a homeless camp in a park along Notre-Dame Street in east-end Montreal through the day Monday, with the plan to have everyone under a roof by nightfall, Mayor Valerie Plante said.
Montreal police and the fire department moved in one day after the city’s fire chief ordered the emergency evacuation of the months-old camp following a weekend fire.
The city said there have been several fires on the site, and fire officials said they took action to ensure the safety of the camp’s occupants, identifying a number of dangers on the site, including flammable materials.
No one was injured in Saturday’s fire, but it almost ignited a nearby propane tank, raising fears of a dangerous explosion.
“For us at this point, the fire department came to us . . . to tell us we need to remove people from the site,” Plante said of the weekend blaze.
The camp, on a parcel of land in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough owned by Quebec’s Transport Department near the Port of Montreal, has been in place since the summer.
By late afternoon, city crews continued to store tents and other personal objects, but the roughly 60 residents of the tent city were gone.
Police began massing nearby before dawn, with patrol cars and officers on bicycles and horseback visible on television footage from the scene. Const. Caroline Chevrefils of the Montreal police said officers were present to assist the fire department.
There were also police in riot gear on site in an operation denounced as excessive by La Ligue des droits et libertes, a local civil-rights organization.
Eve-Marie Lacasse, a spokeswoman for the organization, said officers established a large security perimeter and declined to allow social workers access to campers. “Campers had 15 minutes, under police escort, to choose their personal effects and leave the site,” Lacasse said in a statement.
Plante said the city is aware of a lack of affordable housing, exacerbated by COVID-19 as many shelters operate at reduced capacity and people are forced outdoors.
The City of Montreal has doubled the number of beds available in the city’s shelter system, including a 380-bed shelter in a converted four-star downtown hotel, operated by the Welcome Hall Mission.
Plante said in recent weeks, authorities have been encouraging people to voluntarily leave the camp, accompanying them to find lodging. During that time, fire inspectors had also educated campers about safety.
But not everyone wants to go to a shelter or even be indoors, Plante acknowledged. “There’s enough room and beds,” Plante said. “Some people may not like it, but there’s enough.”
Plante also called on Quebec City and Ottawa to step up with funding for social housing.
“Housing by itself is a Quebec and a federal responsibility,” Plante told reporters. “At one point, there’s a limit to what a city can do. I don’t have the money, I don’t have the power to build. It comes from a team effort.”
Meanwhile, a Montreal social housing group said camps have existed in Montreal for years due to a lack of housing and will remain as long the housing crisis isn’t tackled.
In October, Quebec and Ottawa announced $3.7 billion over a decade to improve social and affordable housing, with Quebec retaining the right to review projects. But the housing organization, known as FRAPRU, says the Quebec government is lagging behind on previous promises.
Veronique Laflamme, a spokesperson for FRAPRU, says the province still hasn’t done what is needed to fulfil its election promise of delivering 15,000 units that had been announced by the previous Liberal government.
Laflamme says that in the past two years, only 2,500 units have been built or are in the process of being built.