(CITY LAB) Sophia Chang, September 12, 2018 — When city officials decided to revamp the notoriously drug-ridden Place Émilie-Gamelin in the center of downtown Montreal, they didn’t push out the many homeless people and addicts who live in the park. Instead, they made the park a focal point for the city’s efforts to socially integrate for the homeless.
Along with housing and job assistance for the homeless, Montreal has encouraged a philosophy of what city officials call “social inclusion” to bring the homeless into the broader society—a policy that started under former Mayor Denis Coderre and has continued under current Mayor Valérie Plante. In March she announced a three-year, $6 million plan to address homelessness.
On a recent sunny summer afternoon in Émilie-Gamelin, people sat at picnic benches, listening to a concert and watching families play ping-pong in the park plaza. Among them was Paul, a well-groomed man dressed in gym attire. “I was just passing by. I like being here because there’s so much going on,” said Paul, who didn’t want to give his full name. He’s 50 and a Montreal native. Paul is one of the homeless people who stay at Émilie-Gamelin. He ended up on the streets, he said, because of addiction.
In a city of 1.75 million, advocates estimate Montreal’s homeless population at about 15–20,000 people based on point-in-time counts. They say the inclusion approach is based on the radical idea that the homeless aren’t just a public relations or services problem to be fixed: They’re members of the larger community. And social inclusion of homeless people can start with small gestures, such as other city residents acknowledging their shared humanity.
“It’s a significant element that the previous and the current administration both subscribe to, and that is to think of homeless people as fellow citizens first—not pariahs and not to be left in exclusion, but to find ways to bring people back into society and reduce the conflict that often exists… between homeless and non-homeless people,” said Matthew Pearce, president and chief executive officer of the Old Brewery Mission, the city’s largest nonprofit organization focused on the homeless.