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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

The Longest Nights

When the temperatures dipped in Montreal

James Hughes

Stella Stosik, 64, of Montreal passed away in peace on Thursday, January 20 from an aortic aneurysm.
— Montreal Gazette notice, January 29, 2022

The word that best describes ­winter 2022 in Canada’s second-most populous city may well be “grim.” By conveying the twin qualities of darkness and otherworldliness, it is perfectly suited to summarizing a season of macabre and strange firsts — and lasts.

Horacio Arruda, the ever-affable and smiling face of Quebec’s response to the pandemic since its outset, resigned suddenly in January. The sixty-one-year-old physician explained that he believed the public had lost confidence in his neutrality and judgment. “I think it’s appropriate to offer you the possibility to replace me before the end of my mandate, at least as director of public health,” he wrote in a letter to the premier, François Legault. Before throwing in the towel, though, Arruda issued one last fiat, which allowed shelters to disregard COVID‑19 protocols, including maximum-occupancy levels when temperatures became extreme. In other words, he encouraged hostels to accommodate the risk of infection in order to protect homeless people from the greater danger of freezing to death.

Before temperatures started to dip, organizations serving the unhoused population throughout Quebec were already struggling with labour shortages and the dearth of places for residents who had tested positive for the virus. People who have no homes, of course, cannot self-isolate in their own residences if they contract Delta or Omicron or any of the other variants.

In Montreal, a facility set up at the beginning of the first wave was overwhelmed toward the end of December 2021, when it was moved to the Chrome, a hotel on Boulevard René-Lévesque, which also couldn’t handle the demand. At the same time, shelters were forced to open “zones rouges,” in a fragile attempt to protect COVID-negative residents from COVID-positive ones. The mayor, Valérie Plante, had seen enough and exercised her emergency powers to repurpose the Stade de Soccer de Montréal, where 350 spaces were made available to handle the volume. The indoor facility, on the edge of a former quarry, provided the breathing room the system needed, in both physical and spiritual terms, to manage through another pandemic winter. But that didn’t keep Stella Stosik from dying on a cold Thursday night. “Stella battled mental illness for most of her adulthood,” her obituary read. “She was also a rebel and did things her way.”

Stosik was the second homeless person in a week to perish on the streets of Montreal. The first was a seventy-four-year-old man named Michael, who had lived outdoors for years by the Super C grocery store in the west end. It was minus 23 the night he died, and the twenty-four-hour McDonald’s where he would normally have stayed warm had been ordered to close its dining room. Michael had been preceded by Elisapie Pootoogook, a sixty-one-year-old Inuk woman from Salluit, one of the province’s northernmost communities. A local intervention worker supporting homeless Indigenous people described Pootoogook as “a lovely soul,” in an interview with the CBC. “If she was excited about something, she would say, ‘Oh my stars, oh my stars.’ ” The terrible irony of her death last November was that her body was found on a construction site near where very-low-cost ­housing was ­supposed to be built, before its rapacious developers backed out of the commitment.

Officials estimate that on any given night in Montreal, some 800 people sleep rough outdoors. But the actual number is probably a lot higher. Small encampments continue to dot the city, despite police efforts to shut them down. The controversial comedian Mike Ward entered the fray in mid-January, when he offered to donate twenty-five “mini-maisons.” The city declined to accept the wooden tent structures, which are heated by the human body, saying the sector needed caseworkers, not tiny mobile homes. Raucous media exchanges on the merits of the idea ended when Victoriaville, ninety minutes away, agreed to take a few of them.

Yet the debate on whether Montreal has the resources to support all of those facing homelessness rages on. Provincial health officials assert the city has never had more capacity than it does today. Front-line agencies counter that it has never had less. Otherwise, they say, Montreal would not have opened, for the first time, its own around-the-clock warming station as an overflow for the many shelters and day centres that are beyond full. Otherwise, Stosik, who “danced through life on her terms and never surrendered to the injustice of her situation,” would not be dead.

Stories like that of Stella Stosik remind us that unhoused people are, first and foremost, individuals with pasts, families, loves, and losses. They are not and will never be a monolithic mass. The dream of those who support them remains the same: to help guide all of these wonderful and complex people into sustainable housing. But the grim reality for the moment is less aspirational. We’re grinding it out, ­simply trying to keep emergency services open for another day, so that we can protect as many as we can, while accepting that we won’t always succeed. Perhaps no sector wants the pandemic and the cold to end more quickly than ours.

James Hughes is a fellow of Renaissance College at the University of New Brunswick and former deputy minister of social development for New Brunswick. He is also a former member of the National Council of Welfare. He owns no right, title or interest in the Fram brand.