In Quebec, it’s no longer legal to be outside after 8pm. As part of efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic, Premier François Legault imposed a curfew. Anyone found outside after hours could be fined $1,500 or more.
“We want people [who are homeless] to stay inside, and there are enough places available,” said Legault, almost offhandedly.
Those who work with Montreal’s estimated 3,100 homeless people weren’t buying it.
“You’re telling everyone to go home, and with homeless people, you’re like, ‘find a shelter, good luck,” said Nakuset, director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, who has worked with homeless Montrealers for two decades. “We know there’s not enough space.”
Several city shelters have had to reduce overnight capacity due to physical distancing. Although the city has set up several hundred beds in requisitioned hotels, advocates for homeless people say beds alone aren’t sufficient, especially in a pandemic.
“We were told not to hand out blankets, because that would be unsafe,” said veteran outreach worker David Chapman. “Without blankets, people are hunched up together — is that any safer? We have to meet people where they’re at.”
“There are all sorts of reasons why people aren’t going to go to shelters,” said Em Steinkalek, a young outreach worker who works with youth involved in prostitution. “People could fear shelters because they’re abuse survivors, because they’re worried about the virus, because they have mental health concerns, because they don’t speak the language or because they have an animal. We could lose more lives than we save.”
Less than a week later, the frozen, lifeless body of Raphaël André, 51, was found inside a portable toilet.
A homeless Indigenous man, André had wandered out of the Open Door shelter around 9:30 pm on Jan. 16. Open Door had been forced to curtail its hours after a coronavirus outbreak and a plumbing issue. (The shelter’s director, Mélodie Racine, said she still doesn’t understand why it was allowed to reopen partially. Public health authorities restored its 24-hour status after André’s death).
While he was a habitué of Projets Autochtones du Québec (PAQ), a shelter serving Indigenous people that’s a 20-minute walk away, André didn’t go there. For reasons that aren’t clear, he walked into a portable toilet a few hundred meters from the Open Door. The next morning, his body was found inside.
PAQ director Heather Johnston describes André as “a quiet man with a lot of friends” who was always welcome at PAQ. “There was a bed here for him that night,” she said. “He knew where to go, but he didn’t make it.”
‘It’s Getting Hard to Keep Track of the Deaths’
André is far from the only homeless person to recently die on the streets of Montreal. Less than a week after André’s passing, a young woman named Amanda died of an apparent drug overdose.
“It’s getting hard to keep track of all the deaths,” said Chapman, project coordinator at Resilience Montreal.
According to Resilience, at least 14 homeless Montrealers have died outdoors since December 2018. The city of Montreal added another 115 beds in a converted community centre the week after André’s death, but Chapman said beds in different parts of the city aren’t necessarily interchangeable.
“People aren’t willing to travel across the city and be in an enormous structure with 300 other people. You can try to twist their arms but… it would be nice if we could just keep them alive.”
It Takes a Village to Build a Tent
When Michèle Audette learned about Raphaël André’s death, she took it personally.
Audette, an academic, is a member of the Innu nation, like André. She knows the dead man’s extended family and spent part of her childhood in Schefferville, the nearest town to André’s remote home village, Matimekosh-Lac John.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the death of one of our Innu brothers, who was somebody’s cousin, somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend,” Audette wrote on Facebook. “I asked [my partner] if we couldn’t just pitch a shaputuan [traditional tent] in downtown Montreal.”
Nakuset had been pushing a similar project for years. When Audette contacted her, she was all in. They began meeting with city and provincial officials to iron out complex logistics and liability arrangements.
A crowdfunding campaign raised $14,000 in a few days. Mary and Barton Goodleaf, restaurateurs from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, donated $25,000. Another Mohawk couple stopped by and offered to donate 50 hot meals.
The nearby Resilience day shelter became a staging area. Pénélope and Nathalie Guay, codirectors of a support centre for Indigenous people in Quebec City, “lent” 10 staff members to the project. A colleague of the Goodleafs, a Mohawk man who had experienced homelessness himself, volunteered to work security.
On Feb. 2, Nathalie Guay and four colleagues made the three-hour trip from Quebec City in a blizzard to get the light and heat turned on.
“What can I say?” said Nakuset. “Native women get stuff done!”
On a February evening, the windows of the tent shone as cheerfully as a log cabin in a painting. It was early and not particularly cold; a few people wandered in for snacks. Most of the 16 lounge chairs were still empty.
The outreach workers chatted in their first language, Innu-aimun. Jenny Hervieux, an early childhood educator who grew up in the Innu community of Pessamit, served as the consensus spokesperson for the Quebec City crew. She empathized with the alienation that many Indigenous people from remote communities, like André, feel when they arrive in the city.
“We come here to study or just to have a change of air, and we can’t get housing, because of discrimination or because it’s just too expensive. Before you know it, you have no food,” she said. “I came to Quebec City on my own with young kids, I knew no one and I didn’t even know where to start.”
“I don’t know [André’s] family, but we had some friends in common,” she added. “He’s Innu, I’m Innu, we’re one family. It hurts.”
The next day, before heading back to Quebec City, Hervieux, Guay and their colleagues attended a dedication ceremony for the Raphaël André memorial tent.
Audette was there along with Nakuset, Mohawk and Innu elders, city officials, Quebec minister for Indigenous affairs Ian Lafrenière, and Grand Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, who is also Innu. Dozens of people gathered around a small woodstove, burning sage and spruce and stamping their boots in the bitter cold.
“I’d like the tragic fate of our brother to be a wakeup call for us all,” Picard said. “Raphaël is our messenger.”
A messenger of what, exactly, is the question.
In the weeks since André’s death, a court order has exempted homeless people from the curfew. The City of Montreal recently announced its intention to fund the tent until at least March 31. It has also opened seven other warming centres with another on the way providing a total, physically distanced capacity of 900, according to city spokesperson Linda Boutin.
However, no one is under the impression that the tents, or the end of the curfew, are long-term solutions for the lack of sufficient safe housing for homeless Indigenous people.
“People who are against the curfew have leveraged Raphaël’s death to say how bad the curfew is. But if Raphaël had a home, he would never have been out there,” said Heather Johnston.
Nakuset, like Picard, sees André’s death as an opportunity for a wide-ranging dialogue on supportive housing that hasn’t yet happened.
“We need more supportive housing where people can have their own space, create a community and get solid grounding,” she said. “We need to help people get over that first huge obstacle and build a life. Families [in Indigenous communities] don’t send their loved ones to the city to die in a portable toilet.”
She described the tent, and the connections it has created, as a snowball rolling down a hill. “I’m hopeful that thanks to these warrior women, we’ll be able to get something good out of a tragedy.”