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‘Vigorous’ cold weather raising concerns for people unhoused in Montreal

Click to play video: 'Where can unhoused Montrealers turn to escape cold?'
Where can unhoused Montrealers turn to escape cold?
WATCH: As the deep freeze hits this week, those experiencing homelessness will be feeling the effect of the extreme cold. Both the city and the province say they have taken steps to protect the most vulnerable. Gloria Henriquez reports – Feb 1, 2023

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for Montreal as a mass of Arctic air moves toward the city.

The “vigorous” cold front could produce snow squalls, the agency warns.

The thermometer will start to dip Thursday night and cold temperatures will continue until Sunday.  The seven-day forecast shows a daytime high of -24 C on Friday with an overnight low of -26 C.

“These temperatures combined with moderate to strong winds will generate extreme wind chill values Friday and Saturday,” the weather statement reads.

The extreme cold has government officials and community organizations on high alert, particularly with regard to those who are unhoused.

“We’re going to make sure everybody has access to warmth over the next few days,” said Lionel Carmant, Quebec’s social services minister.

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“We’ve been working with the health-care network and different organizations to make sure there’s enough room.”

Derek, who preferred not to give his last name, was one of several clients waiting outside Montreal’s Welcome Hall Mission.

He said the shelter lives up to its name, in that he feels welcome there — especially on cold days.

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“They’re very important. Not only to keep warm but somewhere to go where you can go inside, and meet people, talk to people,” he said, “friendly places to be there instead of hanging out around a metro.”

The only problem is that you need to line up early to get a spot if you want to secure a bed.

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In Montreal, the number of beds in shelters has increased from 900 to 1,600 over the last three years and as of 2023, 1,600 beds are available year-round.

This comes following calls from the city and homeless advocates last year for help from all levels of government to move away from a seasonal approach to homelessness.

It used to be that emergency shelters were put in place for the winter season up until March 31 to accommodate any overflow from permanent shelters.

“So everything stays open 12 months a year so the homeless people can have access to care and possibly develop a trajectory where there is a shelter, transition site and supervised lodging,” Carmant said.

That being said, Montreal’s commissioner for the homeless population confirmed the city is opening up two temporary overnight warming centres to ensure no one is left outside for the duration of the cold snap.

One is located a the downtown YMCA on Stanley Street and the other at Centre du Plateau on Saint-Joseph Boulevard East. Front-line workers, including social intervention teams with Montreal police, will increase patrols and help people find shelter.

While Derek is thankful to have some respite from the cold, he dreams of something more permanent.

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He said having an apartment would be life-changing.

“Being involved in shelters is something else. (But) having your own place, having your own peace of mind…”

Welcome Hall Mission CEO Sam Watt agrees more needs to be done both in terms of preventing homelessness and reducing the time people need to spend in shelters.

“We need to do something upstream to prevent and downstream to house, and then we’ll be spending a lot less money on emergency services,” he said.

Watts believes that will only come with systemic change at all levels of government.

He also stressed the need to treat homelessness as a health-care crisis and not a social one.

“If somebody doesn’t have a safe place to live and doesn’t have adequate food, they’re not going to be healthy,” Watts said, adding that those experiencing homelessness often have a variety of other medical issues.

“That’s the sort of thing that needs to be treated and needs to be treated in the context of housing, not in the context of homelessness and shelter stays.”

— With files from Global News’ Gloria Henriquez

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