Montreal's transit commission allows homeless to take refuge from winter cold

By The Canadian Press
December 21, 2017 - 10:15am

MONTREAL — As the frigid winter days set in, homeless people in Montreal are once again being invited to take refuge in the city's subway stations.

Philippe Schnobb, the head of the city's transit commission, says that while many cities remove homeless people from train and subway stations, the Societe de transport de Montreal takes a different approach.

"In Montreal, its a very different situation," he said in a phone interview Thursday.

"Homeless people are allowed in the (subway), and with our partnerships... we have a group of people who can intervene, we have specialists who can take care of them, talk with them, give them some services if they need."

For the last five years, the transit agency has teamed up with social organizations to offer services to the homeless at several subway stations.

These include sending social workers to several different stations and offering a shuttle service to local shelters once the transit system shuts down for the night.

Community workers, including some who were formerly homeless, can send people to mobile health clinics or work with them on finding a place to stay, Schnobb said.

Schnobb says there have been about 3,500 "interventions" with homeless people this year, up from just more than 400 when the program started.

He says the approach, which essentially transforms the subway into "the biggest day centre in the city," goes beyond what many other cities are doing and could serve as a model for others in the future.

Representatives from Calgary and Toronto said neither city has specific policies on allowing homeless people to stay in their train or subway stations.

Calgary does send peace officers to check on their welfare and "attempt to get them to a care facility within Calgary if needed, especially if the weather is cold," city spokeswoman Sherri Zickefoose wrote in an email.

In Edmonton, there's a policy of keeping light rail stations open all night long when the temperature dips below a certain temperature in order to give people a warm place to sleep, a cityspokesman said.

Schnobb says it's impossible in Montreal to leave the subway open all night because of construction and maintenance.

He says that's why the shuttle, run by the Old Brewery Mission, ensures homeless people aren't simply kicked onto the street.

"(The shuttle) is sent to pick up the homeless people in the station to make sure they are brought to a shelter, but if they don't want to go to a shelter, they have everything they need to stay outside in the night," he said.

Last week, the City of Montreal announced it was investing $778,000 to help its homeless population this winter season.

Their measures include hiring outreach workers, providing funding to the shuttle service and opening beds at emergency shelters.

Despite the outreach efforts, too many homeless people in the subway are still being ticketed for minor infractions, according to the director of a legal clinic that helps them.

Bernard St-Jacques says homeless people still regularly get tickets for offences such as loitering, drinking in public or not paying subway fares.

While he commends the transit commission for its actions, he says the approach needs to go beyond the homeless to sensitize employees and transit users to the realities facing homeless people.

He believes that if more people knew about the outreach efforts, they'd be less likely to call authorities to lodge complaints against the homeless.

"They're saying, 'We're accompanying these people rather than legalizing them,' well, I don't agree, we're still legalizing them," he said in an interview.

"But, if we showed people how we are accompanying people, that we're trying to find other solutions, maybe we'd lower the number of complaints and irritations in a general way."


Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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