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Fire breaks out in Montreal’s tent city homeless camp

Click to play video: 'Fire breaks out in Montreal tent city homeless camp' Fire breaks out in Montreal tent city homeless camp
A fire broke out in the tent city encampment along Notre-Dame Street East on Saturday morning. As Global's Phil Carpenter reports, no one was injured and the fire could have been much worse as a nearby propane tank caught fire but luckily did not explode. – Dec 5, 2020

Montreal fire officials say residents at a tent encampment on Notre-Dame Street narrowly escaped a disaster.

This after a fire incinerated a tent and all its contents, leaving a couple without a place to stay.  According to Montreal fire department personnel, the fire broke out inside a tent Saturday around 9 a.m.  They said nobody was hurt, but it could’ve been much worse.

“There was a propane tank that did catch on fire because it was right beside the tent, but it didn’t explode,” said Sandra Lisi, the department’s fire prevention chief.

City officials and advocates for the homeless say the blaze further highlights the urgency of the conditions at the site.

Read more: Notre-Dame tent city shrinks as temperatures drop, but some still refuse to leave

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The site is the biggest of a number of such encampments that have dotted the city’s landscape for months. According to residents and community workers, at one point there were more than 100 tents.

It’s one consequence of the housing crisis which has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, the advocates say.

Critics of the city’s administration, including camp residents like Jacque Brochu, have lambasted the municipal government for not spotting the impending emergency, and for not doing more so people wouldn’t be forced to live in tents.

“The real solution is housing,” Brochu said.

Those fighting on behalf of the homeless have been highlighting the problem of affordable housing.  City officials have said that the matter is a priority and that there are short-term solutions as well.

“We’ve opened a centre with more than 100 beds,” said Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve Mayor Pierre Lessard-Blais. “We’ve rented the Place Dupuis hotel with hundreds of beds and there are still beds available right now.”

Authorities have been trying for weeks to encourage camp residents to move to shelters. Still, dozens have remained at the site, preferring to live outside.

“It’s more dangerous to be inside the shelter than being here,” Brochu said. “COVID is still active!”

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Other residents have complained that the shelters, like the one at the hotel, should be open for longer than 12 hours.

Lessard-Blais blames the provincial government.

“Quebec should’ve financed longer hours,” he said. “The city asked for 16, 18 hours a day so people are not freezing!”

Read more: Homeless advocates perplexed by decision to install skating rink in Cabot Square

Montreal opposition city councillor and spokesperson on homelessness, Benoit Langevin, said the city should still be able to find a way to cater to the needs of the campers.

“We have to start finding individual solutions and we have to stop playing ping pong with these people’s lives,” said the former youth outreach worker.

He and others fear the worst since there have been three other fires at the camp.

“In the last two weeks, yes,” said Lessard-Blais. “Plus many overdoses.”

Camp residents and fire officials say they’re taking steps to make the camp safer by ensuring that tents are far apart. The fire department said inspectors will continue to visit the camp.

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