- We asked a spokesperson for the Catholic Church about the potential for church infrastructure to house Montreal's homeless during the winter.
- She explained that this is much easier said than done.
There were an estimated 3,149 homeless people in Montreal in 2018 and with limited access to resources, community groups struggle to accommodate overflow, especially when facing the winter months. There's a lot to be done to help the homeless in Montreal, which is why some churches open as shelters in winter. Many churches, however, still don't have the infrastructure necessary to facilitate overnight shelters or emergency beds.
In 2018, the city of Montreal unveiled a $7.8-million action plan to help tackle homelessness. The action plan includes a plan to finance a new wet shelter and develop 950 affordable housing units. Some community groups are concerned that there isn't enough money to truly help the problem, though.
When the weather gets colder, demand for emergency beds and overnight shelters grows exponentially. Both the Royal Victoria Hospital and the St. Michael's Mission are providing 150 beds each this year as winter shelters for the homeless. Several organizations are already preparing for the difficult months ahead.
But what about Montreal's numerous churches and other religious infrastructure? In many religious traditions, churches have historically been a place of sanctuary for the displaced and the needy. While religious safe sanctuary policies are no longer legally binding, it can be argued that religious institutions represent a moral and symbolic place where the homeless can be safe and warm.
We spoke to Louise Royer, Director of Social Action Office for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal to find out more about their homelessness initiatives.
The large number of churches and convents in the city present a unique opportunity for the homeless to have a safe place to spend the night. The reality, however, is far more complicated.
"There is potential," says Royer. "There is a plan that I am aware of, to open the basement of St-Pascal-Baylon (6570 Côte-des-Neiges), but for next winter: 2020-2021. There's this plan, along with the Multi-Caf local food bank, and the CIUSS."
Royer tells MTL Blog that plans are easier said than done, "partners are needed because the presence of homeless people inside the building at night involves increases in the expenses like insurance, hydro, [and] manpower that the faithful should not and could not be the only ones to pay for."
There are still many Catholic charities out there, but most function outside of the Archdiocese.
"La Maison du Père, la Maison Marguerite, Accueil Bonneau, Labre House, Dans la Rue and Nazareth House were all founded as Catholic charities, yet, they have to navigate in the complexities of government policies, rules and regulations to stay alive and continue their mission. They are autonomous from the Archdiocese," says Royer.
As housing in Montreal gets more expensive and the promised social and affordable housing is slow to develop, many of Montreal's homeless feel abandoned by the government.
"Do you know that right now, less than 60% of the essential needs of a person are covered with a welfare cheque? Some men cut on housing and are on the streets or otherwise homeless. Women mostly would cut on food and go to the food bank to be able to eat. There is a big place for improvement here on the part of the Quebec government," says Royer.
What's encouraging is that the Catholic church is taking significant steps to address the issue.
"Housing is not affordable for everyone and social housing, too scarce. FRAPRU and other community organizations promote the human right to decent housing. We support them. Société St-Vincent-de-Paul’s social justice priority for the next years is on housing and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a declaration in October about this issue," says Royer.
Many churches in Montreal always accommodate the homeless during the day, despite some challenges, says Royer.
"Churches are places where people can go anytime, when they are open, to be protected from the cold. In most of those that are open during the day, you will see homeless people taking a nap or just sitting on a pew: in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, St-Pierre-Apôtre, and the cathedral Marie-Reine du Monde, for example."
Though there's a lack of emergency evening shelters, the Catholic church in Montreal operates numerous soup kitchens and outreach programs.
"In other churches, an organization or a soup kitchen occupies the basement on certain hours: Open Door at Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette; Labre House at St-Zotique, a cafeteria in Notre-dame-de-Lourdes, and others," says Royer.
It's important to note, however, that many churches aren't equipped to accommodate people staying overnight.
"Yet, churches are not necessarily the place where a crowd would stay at night: they are cold, have no shower, few toilets, no bed. As for pews, there might be a taboo here to overcome or special protection to provide for the Holy Sacrament and for the sacred objects around," says Royer.
There's much to be done to help the homeless in Montreal and the Catholic church does what it can with its resources.
To find out more about how you can help or volunteer for a community organization this winter, visit the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal.