Hanes: We need more than Band-Aids to help the unhoused

Offering tents is a nice gesture, but being without a home isn't just a question of a lack of walls.

Allison Hanes 4 minute read January 26, 2022

A murderously cold January has awakened the generosity of Montrealers who have been moved to try to help the city’s unhoused.

After two deaths on the frigid streets this month, a young woman and her father crowdfunded a purchase of new winter coats, which they handed out this week with the help of Resilience Montreal.

A second (anonymous) donor has paid for the delivery of a load of Prince Edward Island potatoes to the Welcome Hall Mission, following the lead of Mac Watson, who came up with the novel idea to help both Montreal’s hungry and farmers hit by an export ban.

But it’s comedian Mike Ward’s offer of 25 mini-homes to provide refuge to those who prefer not to sleep in the city’s shelters that has garnered the most attention and generated consternation. Ward called out Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on social media after she turned him down.

“These are wooden tents, insulated, heated with the warmth of the human body. They will house you comfortably up to -30,” he wrote. “A simple yes from you and no one else will die this winter.”

The rebuff may seem strange, heartless even, in the midst of a cold snap where some shelters are having to turn people away. But as Plante explained, helping the unhoused takes more than just putting up structures. People who find themselves on the streets need help accessing health and social services. They need to be directed to resources that will assist them in finding permanent homes. They need intervention and social workers, she said, who are in short supply in this tight labour market.

Other questions about the practicality of Ward’s well-intentioned gesture include: where to put the mini-houses; where people would go to the bathroom; where they would get food; and whether there’s a risk of fire or other safety hazards.

James Hughes, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, said he would have entertained discussions with Ward about how to put the huts to creative use. But groups that work with the unhoused in Drummondville and Victoriaville have since put up their hands to take them.

The biggest knock against wooden tents, however, are that they’re just a temporary fix. And stopgap measures to fight the plight of the unhoused just don’t work.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” said Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission.

There are no easy answers, but solutions are no great mystery.

It takes urban health care, a continuum of services, rent supplements and social housing. Those who end up on the streets require a personalized approach that addresses their specific challenges.

“We know how to do it. It’s not a big secret,” said Watts. “We just need to buckle down and make it happen. We just need the resources.”

The main groups that serve the population lacking housing in Montreal submitted a plan to the government last June asking for the funding to get people housed permanently so they could avoid having to set up emergency services for winter at the last minute.

“They went part of the way, but they didn’t go all of the way,” said Hughes. “The investments weren’t made in time. So we’re all improvising with a focus on protecting people.”

Faced with a perfect storm of plummeting temperatures, Omicron infections among the unhoused, and COVID-19 cases among staff who work in shelters, the city opened a warming centre on St-Joseph Blvd. It also opened a COVID-19 ward in a hockey arena for more than 300 guests.

“It’s like Groundhog Day all over again, and we don’t want to have another one,” said Hughes.

Given this predictable crisis, Montrealers have every right to be saddened and disturbed that people are sleeping in métro stations and under highway overpasses this winter. It’s only natural to want to do something about it.

So what is the best way to make a difference?

Partnering with, donating to, or volunteering at community groups that already work in the field is generally more effective than one-off acts of kindness. It’s a good way to ensure real needs are being met and that contributions are maximized.

But maybe, just maybe, we should also put some of our energies into calling out the Quebec government for shirking its responsibilities toward the unhoused. Despite universal health care, we leave charitable organizations to look after society’s most vulnerable. And this has been the case for more than a century.

It’s upside down and backward. We know and can do so much better.



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