By Alexandra Grenier and Colin McGregor
On April 7th, Reflet de Société organized a round table on homelessness. Here are a few highlights from this event:
The panelists included:
Benoît Leblanc, founder and director of Itinérance Zéro Gatineau. He launched this community organization in 2013 to help the homeless in Gatineau obtain food and shelter. They serve over 4,780 free meals per month, and work the streets of their region both day and night.
David Lebœuf of Transit Sept-Îles was himself once homeless. He has worked with the marginalized of the North Shore since 2013. Before that he was involved in special education. On top of offering shelter, Transit Sept-Îles also works on social reintegration as well as on food assistance and post-shelter follow-ups.
Alain Bernier is a community organizer at Réseau solidarité itinérance du Québec. (RISQ). This organization was founded in 1998, and represents over 300 community groups fighting homelessness across the province.
The round table was moderated by Alexandra Grenier, a journalist at Reflet de Société.
A Portrait of Homelessness in Québec
Each region has its own basket of problems causing homelessness. But the three panelists agreed that the housing crisis is among the top causes where they work. “In Sept-Îles, less than 1% of rental properties are vacant, and they’re very expensive,” Lebœuf recounted. “There really isn’t any chronic homelessness. People are forced into homelessness by the lack of available rentals.”
Leblanc said roughly the same thing about his region: “Rooming houses and motels are full up in Gatineau. Often, it’s the 40-somethings that depend a lot on their parents, who are by now deceased or in seniors’ residences. So these folks don’t have many resources.”
Bernier added that most homeless organizations and shelters lack beds and human resources. And the pandemic has made things even worse: “Many citizens who were living in poverty (before the pandemic) saw their circumstances deteriorate, and now they’re homeless,” he said. “It’s the reality in all of Québec’s regions.”
The panelists also discussed how little money is offered by social assistance. “Presently, they give out about $725 a month,” Bernier said. “That’s grossly insufficient. I think that a revision of social assistance is in order.”
In Sept-Îles, industries bring in specialized workers and provide them with housing, Lebœuf indicated. The pressure on the small local housing stock is enormous and no new building is underway. The result: the less fortunate are evicted from their residence and find themselves homeless.
In the Outaouais, even though the housing crisis is just as severe, it’s mostly mental health issues and addiction/dependence that are the main issues, Leblanc argued: “People are practically not afraid of fentanyl. It’s a bit like Russian roulette, people just don’t care. It’s a reality we have to deal with constantly.” He also explained that many with mental health issues stop taking their medication, ending up disorganized and on the street.
How to Help
One of the panelists’ main wishes to improve the homelessness situation is that their organizations receive more funding. That way, they’d be better able to take on more human resources, and better able to help those in need.
David Lebœuf argued that each city and town should have their own housing co-op and that there should be more regulation. “It takes rent ceilings, inspections, etc. People should be able to obtain decent housing.”
Leblanc would like to see aide services and organizations open 365 days a year. Most of the time, organizations close on weekends, public holidays as well as for two weeks in the summer, as well as at Christmas. “Poverty exists all year,” he said. “Itinérance Zéro is one of the few services of this type open every day. Since we’re 100% staffed by volunteers, there’s no workday limitations imposed on us by Emploi Québec’s labor standards.”
Raymond Viger, publisher of Reflet de Société, who sat in on the round table, suggested the creation of jobs adapted for those who find themselves on the street: “Even if the person doesn’t have a secondary 1, if they’re good with their hands, we should be able to find them a job in which they feel useful.”