Emergency beds for the homeless: 1,900 in theory, but not in reality

This January has been extremely cold, with temperatures plummeting close to -40 degrees. This is not atypical for our beautiful winters. However, for people in a state of homelessness, these conditions are unsustainable.  And this winter, homelessness is compounded by an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

In response, the Mayor of Montréal, Mrs. Valérie Plante, quoting the figures transmitted by Le Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux (CIUSSS) du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, is reiterating that the city has enough emergency places, 1,900 to accommodate the homeless.

And she is right.
There are actually 1,900 places in homeless shelters in Montreal.
So why, if there are enough emergency places available, has it come down to opening metro stations as the ultimate solution to a problem that remains profoundly human, medical and societal – a problem that stems from the misunderstanding of the intrinsic causes of the state of homelessness?

And why do community organizations, including us, La rue des Femmes, refute these figures which do not correspond to the experienced reality on the ground, day after day?

Because we, too, are right… and… for several reasons.
This is no longer about places, but about people. We need to continue denouncing, we need to continue explaining, and mostly, we need to understand the actual situation, to prevent further tragedies. Because next winter… Winter will return.

1,900 places yes, but:

1,900 minus the number of beds, dare I say almost half, that must remain closed to respect the pandemic and its sanitary measures. With the impossibility of modifying our buildings, most organizations have therefore had to reduce capacity.

1,900 minus the number of beds unused, due to the forced closer of shelters because of Covid outbreaks, like a nonending refrain. Without notice.

1,900 minus the number of beds that must be reduced because of the acute shortage of employees, because the raison d’être and noble values of community organizations, do not protect us, humanitarian workers, from Covid or its effects. At La rue des Femmes, more than 25% of our workers are absent, thus compromising the number of admissions at any time.

1,900 minus the number of beds, primarily dedicated to emergency sheltering, transformed into transitional sheltering: a new trend in recent years. The basis of emergency sheltering, which is humanitarian sheltering, is free of charge, without constraint, respect of anonymity and confidentiality, and for one night, TONIGHT. Transitional sheltering is intended for a period of a few months, subject to the payment of rent, with a medium-term objective, whatever that may be. But the critical need for emergency beds remains… and that is essential.

So yes, 1,900 places for people in a state of homelessness… minus those closed because of Covid measures, those closed by outbreaks, those closed because of staff shortages and those being used for transitional programs. So, how many accessible emergency beds does this really leave? How many persons in a state of homelessness will get to sleep in one of these reduced beds tonight?

That is the real debate, a debate that speaks of human beings, of their real-life stories and deep suffering, not a debate on the number of places. Forget about the validity of 1,900 places. The emergency… so aptly named, is to recognize the validity of all these beds that are empty or used for purposes other than their original intent. That is the need. Because the emergency is to allow everyone to be warm and safe, tonight and every other night. Opening metro stations as emergency sheltering confirms the need for question and reflection.

And so humanely, political figures aside: how many homeless persons are still outside, day and night? Why are we still talking about the number of beds rather than the number of persons abed?

That is the debate.

Léonie Couture
Founder and President of La rue des Femmes