Published in the Montreal Gazette on April 19, 2014
All Canadians should commend the young men and women across the country for their gallant participation in the ‘Five Days for the Homeless’ action group. In immersing themselves in the very real life experiences of those less fortunate, they are helping to raise awareness about what is clearly a growing dilemma in this but the early years of the 21st century (“Student brave cold for homeless”, Gazette, March 14, 2014).
Those of us who move about the city centre either by foot or public transportation cannot help but remark the complexity of the problem. Virtually everyday I am on the streets and in the metro stations of downtown Montreal. The crisis of homelessness is huge in our city.
In one station in particular, I regularly see a good part of what can only be called the diaspora of the homeless. The Lucien L’Allier station is a second abode to many of those living rough. In the winter in particular, men sleep on the assorted landings of the terminal and a few even slumber on the stairs. Some dispossessed unvaryingly manage to get onto the platforms of the station where they catnap on the passenger benches. Many smoke quite openly, and I have even intermittently seen men urinate in the various corners of that same depot.
Obviously, many itinerants have issues. Some have drug problems while others deal with mental health difficulties. Many come to Montreal from other parts of Canada as this city is seen by some as a kind of safe haven, with both a general tolerance and relatively – cheap street drugs effortlessly available.
However, for numerous itinerant homeless, events do not always unfold as they would wish. I came to realize this when one day two weeks ago I had occasion to drop by a lunch hour soup kitchen for transients in the downtown area. Urgences – Santé was also there caring for a young man from Ottawa who slept out on one of the colder nights this month. His feet were gangrenous and he was told that he would most likely lose them.
I am inclined to agree with letter writer Pierre Moreau (Gazette, February 27, 2014) and his assertion that something is amiss with a society that is prepared to spend $125 million to celebrate the town’s 375th anniversary but can only come up with six million to provide for the estimated 30,000 living in destitution in Montreal.
On the ‘Montreal Diary’ page of the Gazette of March 15, I wrote about the Montreal Typhoid Emergency Hospital established in 1910 on Aqueduct Street (today, Lucien L’Allier). At the time, with typhoid rife throughout the city, a group of influential and affluent Montrealers came forward, along with corporate interests, to put together a plan to alleviate the suffering of so many fellow citizens. A building was donated free of charge by a well-established and successful Canadian company and volunteers converted it, within a matter of three or four days, to serve as an emergency facility for those unlucky souls so cruelly touched by the dreaded disease. It was one of this city’s finer moments of community engagement.
The plight of those of no fixed address is also an emergency, a contemporary one. It calls out for action at all levels.
It is above all, however, a municipal affair. This is our city and these are our residents. What is needed is a rigorous effort on the part of high-ranking citizens and companies, similar to the good people of 1910, to find a way to come to grips with this very human tragedy that persists in our midst.
One hundred and four years after it was used to serve the needs of those affected by typhoid, the edifice adjacent to the Lucien L’Allier Metro Station is once again abandoned. Since our metro stations were never meant to double as shelters for the homeless, why does the city not attempt to procure it, with the aid of individual and corporate sponsors, and convert it into a general facility for those down-and-outs who live in our streets? The building is large enough that various agencies could use it to dispense their diverse services to those in need – housing, education, social integration, mental-health and social assistance are but a few that come to mind.
It is long overdue that we acknowledge the gravity of this distressing phenomenon, which only continues to grow in magnitude. While those active in ‘Five Days for the Homeless’ are to be lauded for their efforts, only a concerted, collective approach, inspired by the ingenuity and compassion of Montrealers who lived in Edwardian times, will bring about the desired results.
Below, the abandoned building which housed the Montreal Emergency Typhoid Hospital in 1910. The Lucien L’Allier Metro Station is not visible but found immediately to the right of the edifice in question.
Below, homeless in Montreal Metro, May 4, 2014