The Homeless Hotel

From the Métropolitain

The beginning of December seems to me an apt time to think about Montréal’s homeless problem.

About five years ago around this time I was walking around the city on my way to work at a local haberdashery, a job I loathed in particular because I didn’t think I could do much better, not to mention my own personal distaste for the rampant consumerism of the holiday season. As I mentally prepared myself for the coming onslaught of pushy customers and rehearsed sales tactics, I came upon a grisly scene in the early morning sunlight. It had been particularly cold overnight, and a homeless man lay frozen on the sidewalk, dead of hypothermia. Police officers were covering the body, so they must have just come upon it themselves.

A man had died through exposure to our environment, because for whatever reason, shelter could not be provided for him.

Now it’s likely alcohol may have been a contributing factor, as a significant amount of the local homeless population (which ranges roughly between 8,000 and 28,000 people based on the latest statistics dating from 1998) have alcohol-dependency issues. Alcohol gives the impression of warmth while in fact facilitating an increase in heat loss. And perhaps he had been offered shelter, but refused it. There are many factors at play here.

My primary question is still just this simple: why was he in the streets in the first place? How can we still tolerate homelessness in this day and age? Especially when we apparently have so much money to spend on crap we don’t need during the annual shopping bonanza we’ve somehow associated with the purported birth of a Nazarethran child in Bethlehem some time ago.

It’s vile and disgusting and wrong. No one should die of hypothermia in Montréal because we lack the means to house the homeless and provide top-notch social services to combat the pathologies which ultimately create the problem in the first place. And damn the expense while we’re at it – no cost is too high to eliminate the problem of people living in the streets. I would argue it is ultimately far more costly to the citizens, local businesses and the municipal government to continue with the status quo.

The homeless need a break.

Of all the people who live in our city, it is the homeless who deserve the biggest break by far. They are homeless – what more needs to be said?

And Who cares why, I might add. It’s irrelevant once someone has no other option but to sleep in a cardboard box near a steam vent (and that’s if you’re lucky). It’s demoralizing, de-humanizing and serves only to stimulate a source of preventable crime. Homelessness breeds desperation, and desperation leads quite directly to crime. And it’s all preventable.

So my question is how much would it cost to provide a massive assisted-living shelter for extended stays, including a sizeable food bank, cafeteria and comprehensive medical and psychological services, for the express purpose of turning homeless people into functioning members of society?

Because the cost of tolerated vagrancy on our society is definitely greater. It is an admission of a society’s failure to provide for itself, and a reminder of our disfunction. It’s bad for business.

In various conversations I’ve had concerning how to best address the homelessness problem in Montréal, I’ve come across an odd argument.

It is that the homeless should have the right to be homeless, and that the current criminalization of what I can only assume to be an increasing homeless population is morally abhorrent.

I agree with the latter, but not 100% with the former.

Being able to live off the land at a provincial or national park is one thing, but no one should have the right to be homeless. The right to have a home is far more to my liking. In this way, the responsibility to ensure a sufficient social safety net lies with government, and I would argue municipal government in particular, given its proximity to the problem. In this ay it becomes a direct manifestation of a city’s responsibility to its own citizens, to ensure the means are available to prevent people from falling off the edge.

I guess this argument is principally rooted in the extreme distaste in how vagrancy laws have and are applied, and how the Montréal police force has not only criminalized homelessness but has further demonstrated an inability to adequately train SPVM constables in mental health issues suffered by the homeless.

How can we forget the tragic shooting of Mario Hamel and Patrick Limoges? Hamel was well-known to have mental health issues (he had apparently been stopped that fateful day for ripping open garbage bags, was chased, cornered, maced and ultimately shot) and Limoges was struck and killed on his way to work by a stray shot.

In my mind it is ultimately the city’s responsibility to make sure that the segment of the homeless population which could pose a public threat is properly medicated and supervised and given a real shot at re-integrating into functional society. But it’s this idea that the problem would be best solved if we simply switched vagrancy’s status from crime to non-crime that bothers me – it may prevent situations such as ticketing a homeless man for $80,000 the city and ticket-issuer can’t possibly expect to collect – but won’t do much to prevent the deaths and crime associated with vagrancy.

So imagine the diverse local services associated with combatting vagrancy in proactive, socially-progressive fashion, were to integrate their services in a single building capable of housing a potentially large-number of people.

I can imagine a hospital – specifically one of the soon to be vacated hospitals in the city centre – would be an ideal location for just such a facility. A blend of accommodation styles would be provided, including private, furnished rooms equivalent to what you’d expect at Best Western or Holiday Inn, in addition to shared rooms such as you might find at the YMCA shelter. A refurbished hospital offers the added advantage of already including the required space and infrastructure, not to mention design, suited for medical and psychological care in addition to housing. Some of the hospitals destined to shutter permanently in the coming years have added advantages, such as proximity to nature (as with the Royal Victoria Hospital) or manicured gardens and a more residential feel (such as with the Hotel-Dieu).

I can imagine a strong NIMBY-styled reaction to either of those locations, which in turn focuses my attention on the Montreal Children’s Hospital location, centrally situated as it is. I think the Children’s may be a better choice ultimately since it’s a large purpose-built heritage building with emergency facilities. There’s enough space on the grounds to allow for additional purpose built expansions (such as for a massive soup-kitchen) while rooftops could be converted into greenhouses to provide organic food. And not only is it in an area already associated with public vagrancy, it’s very easy to access.

In sum, I don’t think it would be that much of a transition, but a lot of core services could benefit immensely if they were streamlined under a single roof.

In any event, just a thought.

If we could create a building that took in people at the end of their luck and gave back citizens able to live normal, productive lives, we’d be doing ourselves a great service. Such a facility is well within the realm of possibility, but it necessarily requires our society establish the right to a home as something with which there can be no exceptions, and thus the city requires the means to transform the homeless, by providing free and nearly-free accommodation to people in need for as long as they need it. Such a facility should be able to provide the requisite assistance necessary to help people with mental illness, dependency issues, lack of education and skills training get to a point in which they can take care of themselves and maintain their own job and home once they leave the facility.

How could we demand any less?

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