People & Culture

Placing the Pandemic in Perspective: Coping with curfew in Montreal

For unhoused residents and those who help them, the pandemic was another wave in a rising tide of challenges 

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Placing the Pandemic in Perspective is a multimedia project to collect and share how Canadians’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic were — and continue to be — shaped by place. Visit the project website to read more stories and add your own.

On the morning of of Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, Jean-Marc,* an unhoused Mohawk man, watched as the body of Raphaël André was removed from the chemical toilet in which he’d frozen to death overnight, five blocks down Milton Street from the gates of McGill University in downtown Montreal. Known as “Napa” to his friends, André, 51, was a well-liked member of the community of unhoused Indigenous people centred in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood. He had spent part of the previous afternoon making snowmen outside the nearby Open Door shelter, which had been closed overnight due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Almost two years later, Jean-Marc chokes up recalling how he tried to comfort André’s niece, who was inconsolable, telling Jean-Marc that she had nothing left to live for.

“Everybody was shocked,” he says. “He was like a brother. If somebody needed something he had, he’d give it to them. He was a guy I was always happy to see — alive. When that happened, my heart just sank. It just doesn’t make any sense that somebody has to die.”

The night of André’s death occurred during Quebec’s first curfew since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the only curfew in North America against the spread of COVID-19. In what Premier François Legault described as a “shock treatment” to control ballooning numbers of COVID cases following Christmas gatherings, residents across Quebec were required to be indoors between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Those caught outside would receive a ticket for between $1,000 and $5,000. The curfew was initially set at four weeks; it ultimately continued for five months and was notable for its lack of exceptions for unhoused people. 

During the pandemic, and especially during curfew, the option to avoid shelters evaporated. 

“What we would like is for the homeless to also go indoors,” Legault told a press conference ahead of the beginning of the curfew. “There are places set up for them. Especially with the cold, we would like them to be indoors, and there is enough room available.”

Almost immediately, a province-wide chorus of advocates for the unhoused argued this statement was incorrect. After the first night of the curfew, James Hughes, CEO of Old Brewery Mission, one of Montreal’s largest homeless shelters, told the media he’d had to post a “no vacancy” sign — and the same was true for shelters across the city.

The curfew went into effect on Saturday, Jan. 9, and by Monday morning, one unhoused man had already received a $1,550 ticket for being outdoors. Nobody on the street has that kind of money. Those who receive welfare get $726 per month, which goes quickly: even for people not struggling with a costly addiction, everything is more expensive when you have nothing. Yet there was nowhere for unhoused people to go as of 8 p.m. 

Which was apparently why Raphaël André chose to shelter in place in a chemical toilet. That toilet still sits at the corner of Milton and Parc Avenue, across the sidewalk from a lot that has been vacant for decades but whose Toronto landlords have installed tall fences and 24-hour video surveillance to prevent unhoused locals from sitting on its bare ground.

Following André’s death, Legault told a press conference, “I was moved, as is the case for everyone, by the death of Mr. André. This is not a normal situation in such a wealthy society as ours for anyone to die in a chemical toilet.” However, he refused to exempt unhoused people from the curfew, claiming, “If we change the rules and say that you can’t give a ticket to someone who is saying they’re homeless, you may have some people that will pretend to be homeless.”

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One week later, Quebec Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse heard from lawyers for a 38-year-old un-housed man suffering from schizophrenia and alcohol dependence who had received two $1,550 tickets for breaking the curfew. They argued applying the curfew to unhoused people was “useless, arbitrary, disproportionate and cruel.” 

Justice Masse agreed, ruling the curfew would cause “irreparable harm” to unhoused people, whose “life, safety and health are put at risk by the current application” of the curfew. She suspended the application of the curfew to people experiencing homelessness. The government did not appeal her decision. 

From the beginning, the pandemic hit unhoused people the hardest. Little Native is a Mi’kmaq man, originally from Listuguj First Nation near the border between Quebec and New Brunswick. Sitting on the floor of St-Laurent metro station, a 10-minute walk from Milton-Parc, he recalls how panhandlers saw their incomes plummet in the first weeks of the pandemic — and they have never recovered. Some took to wearing masks in hopes of convincing passersby that they were safe to approach. Little Native wore a mask for his own protection. “It didn’t help me,” he says. “They laughed at us. People treated us like we were dirty, like we don’t know our manners.”

At the best of pre-pandemic times, Little Native could make $20 in an hour of panhandling. After three years of COVID, he says people are back in the metro system, but they’re not giving like they used to. Today it takes him four to five hours to make $20. 

The logic of the curfew was uneasy: as it went into effect, there was already a ban on indoor gatherings, and virtually no public places were open. The curfew’s effectiveness was further undermined by the Legault government’s decision to open elementary schools two days after the curfew began, and high schools a week later. The same day kids returned to school, scholars from Université de Montréal and George Washington University (including Olivier Drouin, a pediatrician and researcher who set up the website COVID Écoles Québec) released a study of Montreal schools between August and December 2020 that found schools were a significant driver of community spread in the Montreal area.

After five weeks of enduring the nightly curfew, Quebec was still reporting in excess of 1,000 daily new cases of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Ontario, whose cases had also been surging in early 2021, did not impose a curfew: its numbers declined faster in January and February than Quebec’s.

We’re in a state of emergency, but we’re powerless. Our intervention team is exhausted. We have a hard time offering optimal service because people are just no longer capable.

The exemption of unhoused people from the curfew changed only some facets of their experiences. For one, not all police chose to abide by the judicial decision. To aid unhoused people out after curfew, staff of organizations offering food, shelter or harm reduction help gave authorization slips to their clients who could then show the document to police to prove they were unhoused and seeking some kind of service.

Alexandra Pontbriand is deputy director of Spectre de Rue, a harm-reduction and disease-prevention service operating a supervised drug consumption site at the north end of the Gay Village, immediately east of downtown Montreal. Her organization only has enough funding to operate between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., so she prepared authorization slips for those using her service to go to CACTUS, another supervised consumption site open at night. “We had papers we gave them saying we at Spectre de Rue confirmed this person is going to access health services under the curfew,” she recalls. “We could give those to people, but people were really afraid. People [told us] police tore up the authorizations we’d given them and gave them tickets or arrested them.” 

Jean-Marc, the Mohawk man who comforted Raphaël André’s niece on the morning of his death, said he heard even unhoused people with authorizations for work had them torn up by police. This concerned him, as he volunteers as a cook at both the Open Door and Resilience shelters. “If I had to work [after curfew],” he says, “I’d have somebody drive me back. That way, if I was with the director, there was no way I would get a ticket.”

Marie-Ève Grenier, a Spectre street worker who has held many roles in the organization, notes that even for those whose authorizations weren’t torn up, carrying a piece of paper formally identifying oneself as a drug user was complicated. “It was super stigmatizing to be out in the street,” Grenier recalls. “You show papers that you’re going to CACTUS? Well, clearly, you’ve got dope on you. It was frightening. People didn’t want to go out with their dope, get arrested and have their dope confiscated. Meanwhile, now the police know you’re someone who consumes injection drugs, and you’re stigmatized in that manner as well.”

The rise of the term “unhoused” to refer to people formerly known as “homeless” reflects an understanding that many people on the street indeed have some form of home. A tent in a tent city surrounded by trusted friends feels like home. The intensity with which dwellers in tent cities around Montreal have fought eviction since the pandemic hints at the extent to which these communities are home to their residents.

Many people on the street have always avoided shelters entirely, with good reason. Amanda Grenier, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto, studied Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission shelter for her 2022 book Late Life Homelessness: Experiences of Disadvantage and Unequal Aging. Particularly for aging people on the street, shelters are often unwelcoming. They are not designed to house people with mobility difficulties, and they offer little in the way of services designed to ease the lives of older people on the street. Moreover, shelters are frightening: Grenier notes that the constancy of violence on the street means many unhoused people expend significant daily effort attempting to avoid being victimized. Prior to the pandemic, shelters were widely regarded as easy places in which to get robbed or catch tuberculosis. But during the pandemic — and especially during the curfew — the option to avoid shelters evaporated. 

In the fall of 2020, the City of Montreal, in conjunction with provincial authorities and the Welcome Hall Mission, moved to convert the upscale Hotel Place Dupuis across from Place Émilie-Gamelin, a significant gathering place for unhoused people on the eastern edge of downtown Montreal, into a 24-hour, 380-bed shelter. It operated as such between Nov. 3, 2020, and June 30, 2021; most of that time was under the curfew. Rather than cramped dormitory housing, residents had individual rooms with individual bathrooms.

Illustration: CK Nosum/Can Geo
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Yet a reality of street life is that most people who end up without a place to live do so because of addiction, mental illness or a combination of the two. This was true of Raphaël André. Born in the Innu Nation of Matimekush-Lac John in northwestern Quebec, André was proud of his ancestry but struggled with addiction to alcohol, which had fuelled a hard life of disturbing experiences. In 1988, when he was 18, he accidentally killed his brother-in-law in a drunken brawl and pleaded guilty to manslaughter, serving seven years in a penitentiary. 

Jonathan Lebire, director of frontline outreach organization Comm-Un, spent five years on the street in his teens and twenties. He insists it’s a fundamental mistake to try to tell people with these experiences not to drink or take drugs. Yet this is precisely the expectation of almost all Montreal shelters, including Hotel Place Dupuis when it was open. A ban on alcohol and drugs in shelters makes sense: alcohol, in particular, and stimulants like meth and crack, can fuel volatile and unpredictable behaviour, leading to violence. Allowing such substances into shelters immediately increases the demands on those running the shelters: there’s more need for security, and employees have to be trained to deal with drugs, alcohol and addiction. No shelter has extra money to invest in those expenses.

The curfew wasn’t the problem; it was distress, it was [overdoses], it was a lack of resources,
a lack of staff.

This is a huge problem, Lebire says, because it means shelters are designed to receive a kind of unhoused person who doesn’t really exist — someone who sees shelter as more important than their addiction and is able to handle the suffering associated with their trauma without being medicated (at least until morning).

“Everything you think is bad memories,” he says. “Everything you see brings back that trauma. And then you have to sit on the side of the street doing nothing? There’s no way that’s going to work. The alcohol is what keeps you alive, that keeps you running in the morning.”

When the curfew ended on May 28, 2021, Marie-Ève Grenier says, “It was a relief. But it changed almost nothing for us.”

Pontbriand agrees. “We were already in hell. The curfew wasn’t the problem; it was distress, it was [overdoses], it was a lack of resources, a lack of staff. You throw a curfew on top of that? Of course it’s going to explode.” 

One unintended consequence of the curfew was a sudden increase in crack cocaine consumption, particularly in the Milton-Parc area. Lebire reports that prior to the curfew, most of the population he served drank alcohol but didn’t consume many other drugs, even cannabis. However, that changed after the curfew. Pontbriand noticed the change as well, saying, “If your drug of choice is alcohol and the depanneur is closed, you want to get that buzz. You want to survive, so you’ll smoke crack, even if you still have your alcohol addiction.” 

Those unhoused people who began smoking crack to cope with limited access to alcohol during the curfew, or who couldn’t get opioids and switched to more widely available crystal meth, are now addicted to those drugs. Others who rolled with the increasing availability of fentanyl as a substitute for heroin are living with opioid tolerances so enormous that they can no longer stave off withdrawal sickness with heroin, Dilaudid or morphine — and now they have to worry about benzodope, a dangerous mixture of fentanyl and benzodiazepines that cannot be effectively treated with naloxone in the event of an overdose. 

At Spectre de Rue, says Pontbriand, things feel much the same today as they did before March 2020. Harm reduction initiatives are politically unpopular, and Spectre struggles for funding. They would like more than anything to be open later than 3:30 p.m., and expand their array of services. “We’re in a state of emergency, but we’re powerless,” she says. “We know that the way we want to do it works, yet we don’t have the means to apply that. Our intervention team is exhausted. They’re faltering. We have a hard time offering optimal service because people are just no longer capable.” 

Adds Grenier, “I think of the metaphor of being in the water. With the housing crisis, the water rises. Overdose crisis: the water rises. Pandemic: water rises. We’re trying to scream out our message but we’re unable.”

Equally for some on the street, “normal” is as bad as it ever was. Mala, at the corner of Parc and Milton, lost his 30-year-old son to an overdose last November. In tears, he says, “I miss him. I’m lonely now. I left him — two-and-a-half years old, and I had to leave him. I came back 20 years later. That’s how it worked.”

The luckiest may be Jean-Marc, who’s got a line on a one-bedroom apartment. But he worries about those living in a tent city near Cabot Square, southwest of downtown, particularly in the winter.

As 2023 began, a new night shelter for Indigenous people on the street was scheduled to open in a former church just down Sainte-Catherine Street from Cabot Square. It will open nightly at 8 p.m. and close at 7 a.m., offering 30 beds and comfort food, and is to be named with the Innu word for house: “Mitshuap Raphaël ‘Napa’ André.”

*Last names have been omitted or street names used throughout this story.


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This story is from the March/April 2023 Issue

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