Tag Archives: Homeless problem in Montréal

Montreal Cops, the Homeless Problem & Paradoxical Undressing

Today’s news is that the Montreal police (SPVM) will discipline an unnamed constable for threatening to lock a homeless man (seen on a remarkably frigid day last week in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt outside the Jean-Talon Métro station) to a pole unless he stopped being a nuisance. Apparently police were called because the man had been ‘acting aggressively’ inside and around the Métro station. The video of the altercation, and the constable’s poorly-considered comments, is posted above.

Many were quick to condemn the constable for his apparent lack of humanity, and indeed it’s pretty inhumane to lock an inappropriately-dressed homeless man with aggression issues (and possible mental problems) to a pole outside on a day when even the most acclimatized Montréalais would think better than to venture outside.

The question is, was the constable serious?

I should think not. I don’t honestly believe the constable had any actual intention of locking the poor man to a pole. I would like to say I can’t imagine Montreal police would ever do such a thing, but unfortunately the force has consistently demonstrated a bad habit of abusing the fundamental right of the citizenry to be free of unwarranted police aggression. The conduct of the SPVM at annual May Day demonstrations, during the Printemps Érable or its predilection to shoot first and ask questions later are all justification enough to be critical of the SPVM.

Though again, I don’t actually believe this particular constable actually intended to lock this man to a pole on a freezing cold winter day.

I don’t think any individual police officer in this city would actually think they could get away with such brutality, especially anywhere near a major Métro station. That the constable’s offending remarks were captured on video is proof enough – imagine the shit storm if the video had been of the police locking the man to a pole and then driving off?

That’s full-blown inquiry territory. It would imply the constable didn’t fear any negative repercussions from his superior officers and this in turn would suggest such appalling actions are ‘normal operating procedures’ for the SPVM. But such is not the case. The offending constable will be reprimanded, though not dismissed. My guess is he’ll be riding a desk for a little while.

Again, if he had in any way been serious I have a feeling the bull’s upper brass would very quickly have gotten rid of him, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

SPVM spokesman Commander Ian Lafrenière indicated disciplinary actions could range from a verbal warning to a suspension, but didn’t indicate what would happen. He did elaborate, however, that the constable did try to help the homeless man and that his comments were completely unacceptable.

The exchange highlights a crucial problem in Montreal and other major cities; police are more often than not the primary point-of-contact with our homeless population, not social workers or specialized therapists.

And as we all know, police aren’t social workers, nor are they psychologists or nurses. Yet we expect them to play these roles despite the fact that far too few have even had a cursory training in these domains. Is it any wonder they sometimes fail spectacularly? And do we really want the police to be responsible for our city’s homeless population in the first place?

Montreal’s Homeless Problem

The first question we need to ask ourselves is: how many people in this city of 1.65 million people are actually homeless?

Unfortunately, what statistical information we have is both limited and old – 15 years old to be precise.

The last major study of homelessness in Québec was conducted in 1998-1999 and revealed that there was somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people ‘who had used services intended for the homeless’ at one point during the year here in Montreal. Of those, more than 8,000 had no fixed address during the time of the study.

It’s hard to say whether these figures are still relevant, for example, we’ve had something of a major economic crisis these last few years, and I would imagine this may have put more people into precarious living situations.

But if we’re to assume that these numbers are in fact accurate, and that we have a somewhat stable homeless population of between 6,000 and 10,000 people, then I think we have a legitimate homeless problem and need to start coming up with some solutions.

And appealing for more donations to food banks and homeless shelters isn’t going to cut it. At a certain point we’re going to have to bite the bullet and acknowledge that the homeless problem is indeed everyone’s responsibility, and that both the city and province need to collaborate of finding a long-term shelter solution for people who otherwise run the risk of freezing to death on a city street.

I saw just that about a decade ago Рa homeless man who had died of severe hypothermia and exposure, lying half-naked on the sidewalk outside the McGill M̩tro entrance on President Kennedy and University. When I saw him the paramedics had just arrived and his clothes were strewn about, possibly as a consequence of paradoxical undressing.

Paradoxical Undressing

Watching this video reminded me of a of some aspects of hypothermia that may help put what we’re seeing into context.

In the case of the threatened homeless man, or of the dead man I saw lying on the sidewalk, both were inappropriately dressed given the extreme cold. In the case of the former, he’s seen wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts on what may have been the coldest day of the year thus far. With regards to the latter, he appeared to have taken his clothing off.

As it happens, people suffering from hypothermia are known to take their clothing off in what’s called ‘paradoxical undressing’. They also tend to be highly confused, agitated, confrontational, aggressive and, in the final stages of hypothermia, will attempt something called ‘terminal burrowing‘ wherein the victim seeks out small partially enclosed spaces in which to lay down.

Suffice it to say, I have my suspicions that may have lead to the man’s apparent aggression and lack of clothing. He likely spent the night out in the cold and had been desperately trying to get warm inside the Métro entrance to no avail. The Métro isn’t heated – warmth is generated primarily by concentrated, captured body heat that keeps most station platforms relatively warm throughout the year, but most of that warmth would have dissipated at the upper level of the vestibule.

In sum, this guy, regardless of his existing mental state, was likely being driven crazy by the cold, and I would expect a nurse, paramedic or even a social-worker with experience working with the homeless would know this instinctively. By contrast, I expect cops to know the highway driving code and Miranda rights instinctively.

Is homelessness a right?

A fundamental philosophical human-rights question is whether or not any individual citizen has the ‘right’ to be homeless.

I don’t think so, but I would counter that the state, as agent of the common interest, has a responsibility to provide food, clothing and shelter to everyone who can’t (for whatever reason) provide it for themselves.

I suppose the Ayn Rand types would argue that any legislation of the sort would do nothing but help lazy people be lazy, and that it would ultimately lead the whole of society to simply give up trying and live off government hand-outs.

Being a reasonable person, I think such thinking is ludicrous.

Regardless, it’s an interesting question because this is Canada and most of us believe that we have some kind of an inalienable right to live off the land much in the same fashion as our colonial-era ancestors. If it isn’t a right already, I would expect most Canadians would support any measure which stipulated we all have the right to pitch a tent on unclaimed land and camp for as long as our supplies last. And as long as we’re all responsible and clean up after ourselves, no harm, no foul. It’s part of the Canadian aesthetic – we love the outdoors and our culture has been shaped in no small part by the lifestyles and experiences of frontier living and seasonal nomadism.

But this can’t possibly apply to cities and their homeless populations, and we can’t cavalierly insinuate that homeless people are homeless because they choose to be, as if they were simply camping in our parks, alleyways and public spaces.

The primary reason why we can’t look at homelessness as a choice is the fact that most homeless people in Montreal, as elsewhere, suffer from mental illness, not to mention poor diet, poor general health, drug addictions etc. (and, taking it a step further, are suffering from all this at the same time). As such, it’s inconceivable that anyone would think the average homeless person is in any way capable of making a conscious, rational choice to be homeless.

Ergo, I think it ultimately comes back to the state, not only to provide for the homeless, but to make sincere and long-term efforts at rehabilitation.

However, in order to guarantee the success of such a program, people can’t be permitted to sleep on the streets.

This last point will doubtless irk many progressives who would nearly instinctively imagine the police rounding up all the homeless in the middle of the night and putting them in some kind of a prison. This isn’t what I’m proposing of course – I think we need a large centralized shelter that can accommodate many thousands of people at the same time (and for prolonged periods of time), in which a wide variety of services are made available to help get people off the streets and back into the realm of productive society.

But of course, it would likely require police to force obstinate homeless people into such a facility, even if there were specially-trained social-workers whose job it was to incentivize and convince the homeless to take up the offer. Fundamentally, the movements of the homeless can’t be limited (up to and including the right to wander the streets all day), so perhaps a specific law that could be enacted would simply say no one has the right to sleep overnight in a public place.

No easy answers here, just more ethical and moral questions the people of a modern city need to ask themselves.

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?