homeless Mike Ward homeless shelters Montreal Valérie Plante

Why the City of Montreal turned down Mike Ward’s homeless shelters

The 25 “minimaisons” offered by the comedian are now headed to Victoriaville and Drummondville instead.

We need to talk about why the city of Montreal kiboshed Mike Ward’s offer of 25 temporary homeless shelters in the midst of a vicious cold snap, during a time when homelessness is on the rise and mere days after yet another human being was found frozen to death out in the streets.

Mayor Valérie Plante stated that the problem isn’t due to a lack of temporary housing capacity for the homeless population, but rather a lack of resources, and that addressing the homeless problem isn’t so simple as providing shelter.

This is an unfortunate tactic employed by politicians when confronted with a good solution to a problem they didn’t think of: diminish it, as if addressing any part of the problem isn’t worth it because it doesn’t address the entire problem.

Mike Ward offered 25 individual homeless shelters or “minimaisons” to the city of Montreal in 2021 and 2022.

No one’s looking to Mike Ward to come up with solutions to problems that stem from the very core of a failing socio-economic system that would rather have people die frozen to the pavement than increase taxes by small fractions on the wealthiest among us. But solving the whole problem isn’t the issue. The issue is entirely focused on providing emergency shelter to a specific subset of the unhoused population (i.e. those who, for whatever reason, would prefer not to stay in a shelter) during a period of global pandemic, tectonic economic shifts and a climate crisis occurring simultaneously. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The shelters are already built and were offered to the city last year (for the exact same, hyper-specific reason). Twice the offer was rebuffed by a mayor who positions herself as a progressive humanitarian, for seemingly no other reason than that the city doesn’t have the resources to manage two dozen wooden huts.

Our society’s approach to homelessness is very peculiar: it seems as though we’re happy to ignore them up until the point where they start making homes for themselves. We don’t mind it when they take shelter in abandoned buildings, back alleys or construction sites, but it seems like they cross a line when they buy tents, sleeping bags, camping stoves and — God forbid — establish small communities and try to maintain some dignity. Based on the reactions of our city and countless others, this seems to be the step too far. For some reason, 20 people sharing a dozen tents up in La Mauricie or Tremblant can be trusted to operate propane stoves and fireworks in the middle of forest fire season, but the same thing happening on Notre-Dame West in December is a grave danger to the public. 

But that’s it, right? We’re still operating under the assumption that all the unhoused have severe mental health issues and thus cannot be trusted to look after themselves. No one in power wants to admit that there’s a segment of the unhoused population that doesn’t need to be institutionalized — they’ve just fallen on extremely hard times. No one in power wants to admit that this city isn’t fair or just, that it doesn’t do that much better of a job taking care of its own citizens, and that it hasn’t kept up with the evolving needs of the needy. And while it has been able to turn some hotels into temporary shelters, the shelters are institutions, often with strict rules. Has the city leased any hotels, recently completed condo towers, vacant office buildings or any of the abandoned hospitals lying around to address the housing crisis? 

The issue of lacking resources gets under my skin as well: why is it that the SPVM is routinely allowed to blow their budgets by tens of millions of dollars, only to then have their budgets increased, but the same courtesy can’t be extended to helping the unhoused? How much money do we waste on policing the homeless that could be used more constructively? How much money would we not have to waste on the police if the unhoused and those on the margins were treated with the dignity they, as human beings, so rightly deserve? Remember, this all boils down to our city maintaining some backwards 19th century public morality tradition that treats the poor and the sick more like criminals than ordinary citizens. 

That point aside, it should concern all of us that the mayor would rather have us all think about the impossibility of solving the problem of homelessness and social inequity in their totality than support the initiatives of citizens to address any part of the problem at all. In a recent interview with APTN, Plante redirected questions about what the city of Montreal can and ought to be doing to place the responsibility with the government of Quebec, stating its their mandate and asking how the Legault administration envisions homelessness. If his handling of the pandemic is any indication, Legault’s completely out of his depth on public health issues. Plante would almost assuredly get better insight on how best to address homelessness by speaking to the unhoused living around Cabot Square than waiting for Legault to come up with any kind of policy.

And am I wrong or is Plante not the leader of Projet Montréal — the party built on a foundation and philosophy of active, engaged citizens working from the grassroots up to make their city a better place?

Which makes me wonder: how much of this has to do with Mike Ward and the mayor not wanting to be associated with him? 

I reached out to Nakuset of the Native Women’s Shelter and Resilience Montreal to find out how she was able to get the city to go ahead with the Raphaël André memorial warming tent in Cabot Square. Nakuset had been vocal on the issue of providing alternative shelters for Montreal’s homeless community well before André’s untimely and unnecessary death. It was his passing that prompted action, albeit not from the city itself, but rather from the provincial Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière and Senator Michèle Audette, both of whom offered tents (more specifically, Audette offered a ‘shapetaune,’ which is a large tent of traditional Indigenous design). Here the bureaucracy got in the way — despite being a minister, Lafrenière didn’t have the authority to put up a tent in Cabot Square, and the city rejected the shapetaune, but ultimately offered their own tent, plus the permit and the heating as well.

Nakuset of the Native Women’s Shelter and Resilience Montreal got the city to put up the Raphaël André memorial tent last winter

Granted there are some differences between these two situations. Nakuset is a well-respected community leader who has prior agreements with the city to operate out of Cabot Square and hold events there. She has contacts, people know her and she has a proven track record of getting things done. Mike Ward does not, but this shouldn’t matter—the city was willing to accommodate the initiative of one citizen last year, but not a different citizen this year, and the solutions aren’t fundamentally different from one another, given that both are ‘outside the box’ albeit temporary solutions to an evolving and complex problem.

Perhaps Valérie Plante would rather be more closely associated with Nakuset than Mike Ward. Okay, I get that. But you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, especially not during a crisis. And if Plante really does want to be more closely associated with Nakuset, she might want to follow up on promises made last spring about finding more permanent shelter solutions around Cabot Square, because it seems like the mayor is happy to have Nakuset attend photo ops, but not coming through on promises made.

As for Ward’s minimaisons, they’ve been picked up by Victoriaville and the Drummondville suburb of Saint-Lucien, where in the latter case they’ll be integrated into some kind of homeless camp agricultural project. It isn’t the best use of these structures, but it says something that small towns dans les régions with fewer resources than Quebec’s metropolis can somehow figure out how to put good intentions to good use. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.