MONTREAL (AFP) – All along the edges of a long boulevard in Montreal stretches an unprecedented sight in this city: hundreds of tents that have sprung up in a brand new homeless camp since the end of summer, with many of the people thrown out of their homes because of the pandemic.
“Welcome to the trendy encampment of Notre-Dame!” quipped Jacques Brochu, dubbed “the mayor” by his neighbours.
At 60, Brochu said he found himself homeless and living in a tent on Notre-Dame Street after losing his affordable housing, which was repossessed by its owner.
Like his new neighbours, he is preparing for a cold Quebec winter, where temperatures often plunge to minus 20 Celsius (minus four degrees Fahrenheit).
“I manage to heat my tent very well,” Brochu said, showing off his small candles. A tarpaulin covering the shelter does the rest.
In the camp in Hochelaga, once a working-class neighbourhood in eastern Montreal that is undergoing gentrification, the long-term homeless rub shoulders with people who have recently lost their jobs, as well as students and workers who have lost their homes.
Guylain Levasseur, 55, who has been homeless for six years and lives in a small caravan, is considered the encampment’s “manager”.
Under a canopy by his caravan, which is lined with armchairs, he has set up a kitchen of sorts, where people can come and take food or donate it.
“There are people who come to bring us meals every day,” he said. His van is overflowing with sleeping bags and warm clothes also donated by good Samaritans.
For the past three months, he has given part of his meagre welfare payouts to help buy generators to keep the tents warm.
The community has bought seven so far, running on gas donated by well-wishers.
Another resident managed to set up a Wifi network, under the account name “Notre-Dame camp”, and relayed from a router mounted atop his caravan.
The homeless people also have access to portable toilets.
Serge Lareault, Montreal’s commissioner for the homeless, said the coronavirus has “thrown hundreds of people onto the streets”.
“The phenomenon of homeless encampments is new to Montreal,” he said.
Last year, there were around 3,000 homeless people in the city, but that number has snowballed since the virus broke out, wreaking havoc on the economy and squeezing affordable housing.
“Our emergency shelters are overflowing, and demand is still growing; there are camps pretty much all around the city,” he said.
Faced with an emergency, the authorities in the province of Quebec and the city of Montreal have launched a number of initiatives, including a hotel that, starting this month, is due to lodge 380 homeless people every night until the end of March.
Not everyone on the streets is happy, though, about booking into spartan shelters in the middle of a pandemic.
“You never know who your neighbour is going to be, or where they were before,” said Brochu, who spent time in a shelter after losing his home.
He will not be going back.
“Here, I can take care of myself,” he said, wearing an anorak donated by a charity.
“As long as there are people staying here, I’ll be here, too,” said Levasseur.
Lareault, the homeless commissioner, added that many homeless people might be driven away from the encampment when the temperatures drop.
“The cold is very dissuasive,” he said.