“There was never a logical reason to include people experiencing homelessness in the curfew. People experiencing homelessness have no permanent shelter to stay in during the curfew, nor do they have the resources to pay the fines for breaking curfew. Had people experiencing homelessness been exempt from the curfew from the start, Raphaël André would still be with us today.” ― Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (11 Feb. 2021) ― The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) supports the court order exempting people experiencing homelessness from the nightly curfew ongoing in Quebec. The work done by Clinique Juridique Itinérante and the ruling by Quebec Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse were desperately needed to prevent further harm to people experiencing homelessness.
NUPGE also calls on Quebec Premier François Legault to officially exempt people experiencing homelessness from the current curfew and any future curfews. This call is echoed to any provinces currently under similar lock down measures or considering fines to accompany them.
“There was never a logical reason to include people experiencing homelessness in the curfew,” says Larry Brown, NUPGE President. “People experiencing homelessness have no permanent shelter to stay in during the curfew, nor do they have the resources to pay the fines for breaking curfew. Had people experiencing homelessness been exempt from the curfew from the start, Raphaël André would still be with us today.”
NUPGE flagged concerns around people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic in spring 2020
In May 2020, NUPGE President Larry Brown sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to express concerns regarding people experiencing homelessness and COVID-19. The letter outlined the key issues at hand: 1. people experiencing homelessness weren’t receiving any COVID-19 benefits or protections from the virus; 2. Community Service Workers (CSW) weren’t receiving adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), or funding that enables them to do their jobs safely.
The letter also provided several short-term and long-term action items that, during the pandemic, would better protect CSWs and people experiencing homelessness and would lay the groundwork for eliminating homelessness in Canada.
Shelter system unprepared for pandemic
As we feared, things have only gotten worse for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Shelters have been traditionally under-resourced and lacked capacity to deal with demand before the pandemic started. In the first wave of the pandemic, lockdowns rolled out with little attention paid to those who don’t have a home to lockdown in.
Many shelters lack the ability to contain the spread of COVID-19, as they operate with shared common spaces and don’t have the funds or the staff resources to sanitize regularly. There’s also a gap in information sharing, as people experiencing homelessness can’t always rely on news updates from television or the internet, and don’t have the privilege of hearing public health updates directly from lawmakers.
There are even more hurdles for people experiencing homelessness who have addictions, physical disabilities, or mental health conditions that require access to substances or other front-line care. These individuals could potentially die if required to isolate.
Reported by Global News, Montreal’s shelter system was thrown into crisis in December 2020, when outbreaks occurred at several shelters simultaneously, with both workers and clients testing positive for COVID-19. Shelters were forced to reduce their services, or close entirely, to deal with staffing shortages.
Pressures on people experiencing homelessness increased during pandemic
The problems facing people experiencing homelessness in Quebec aren’t unique to the province, but they have been compounded by the lockdown.
The Quebec government has argued against exempting people experiencing homelessness from the curfew. Quebec’s Deputy Premier and Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said, “the province is putting its trust in police officers who are used to working with homeless communities” (CTV News). This sentiment does not inspire confidence when viewed against a back drop of mounting calls for police accountability in Canada due to a series of violent confrontations between the police and members of racialized communities, as well as people with mental health conditions.
CBC News reported that between April and June 2020, at least 4 people of colour died during police wellness checks in Canada. CBC News also reported that between 2000 and 2017, 70% of the people who died during encounters with police had mental health or substance abuse problems, with Black and Indigenous people overrepresented in those numbers.
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness states that Indigenous youth, racialized youth, and youth in the LGBTQI2S+ communities are overrepresented in the number of young people experiencing homelessness. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) pulled data from multiple studies and states that between 23% and 67% of people experiencing homelessness in Canada report having a mental illness.
Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in Montreal issued a disproportionate number of fines
Though not all people experiencing homelessness have a mental illness or come from a marginalized community, enough do that it’s problematic to expect police to show “good judgement” when issuing tickets (Ricochet). This is particularly true when research shows more than 50,000 tickets have been issued to people experiencing homelessness in Montreal between 2012 and 2019. According to CBC News, “the researchers found an ‘alarming’ trend, with more than double the amount of fines handed out in 2017 (9,580) compared to 2014 (3,841).”
The researchers also found that Indigenous people experiencing homelessness were particularly targeted. In lieu of a home address, the addresses of shelters were written on the tickets. 4% of all tickets in the study had a shelter that services Indigenous people listed as the address. There are approximately 13,000 Indigenous people living in Montreal, which means they account for less than 1% of the city’s population.
As part of their legal challenge to have people experiencing homelessness exempt from the curfew, Clinique Juridique Itinérante presented evidence of fines ranging between $1,000 to $6,000 that were issued to people experiencing homelessness for breaking the curfew. The Crown did not challenge that evidence in court (Global News).
Raphaël André’s death could have been prevented
It’s important to note that people experiencing homelessness cannot be categorized as a monolith. Like the rest of Canadian society, individuals experiencing homelessness have unique needs. A one-size-fits-all plan to end homelessness in Canada will not work.
But steps can be taken now. Raphaël André’s death could have been prevented. Had people experiencing homelessness been exempt from the curfew from day one, André would not have experienced the mental burden and physically dangerous task of trying to hide from the police. Had shelters been given immediate support when outbreaks in December forced them to reduce capacity, there might have been a bed for André in an overnight shelter. And if the shelter system, low-income housing projects, and social supports that help people get off the streets permanently been properly funded before the pandemic, this crisis might not have existed, period.
The time to act is now
NUPGE is thrilled to see vaccination campaigns underway for people experiencing homelessness in Montreal. The logistics will not be easy, but protecting the most vulnerable members of our society and the workers who service them is vitally important.
Community service workers warned from the start of the pandemic that people who were already living precariously (people who are predominantly members of marginalized communities) were at higher risk of becoming homeless. They warned that the existing shelter system would not be prepared to deal with a sudden influx of people experiencing homelessness for the first time. Canada has recouped 80% of the jobs lost during the first wave of the pandemic, but rates of unemployment for BIPOC women remain high.
The reasons people experience homelessness vary. But one thing is certain: strengthening our social services with publicly funded child care, universal pharmacare, and increasing the availability of low-income housing will go a long way to supporting individuals and families living precariously. We cannot reverse the tragedy of Raphaël André’s death, but we can push for properly funded community services that assist getting people experiencing homelessness off the street for good.
Politicians have been telling us since March 2020 we’re all in this together. It’s time to act like it.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE