By Geoff Agombar
Local Journalism Initiative
Under Joffre Bridge in downtown Sherbrooke, two circles of a few dozen brightly coloured dome tents have popped up and the plasticky smell of trash can fires fills the air.
Walls of blankets and palettes ring the encampment. A young father and daughter drive up with a box of sandwiches. This is his second drop-off and he knows little about why the camp has expanded these past few weeks. He just knows that food is welcome.
A Fire prevention services Chef de service SUV passes behind a neighbouring business then emerges by the tracks and rolls alongside the camp. The driver slows at open sightlines through to the fire cans. One camp occupant says they have had to put fires out if they were unattended or if someone said it is not yet cold enough to need one. The SUV rolls on.
A group of students from Champlain College arrive pulling a small trailer. Mathieu has a ziplock with several packs of smokes and a small load of cut wood. Kelly and Mathieu say they came yesterday to check what people wanted before asking fellow students for donations. Things to keep warm was the request, gesturing to the firewood and bags of warm clothes, hats and blankets.
Richard and his son have come with jackets and blankets too. Richard wonders why the city is not parking heated city buses alongside the camp at night. One camp occupant suggests church basements could be opened at night.
Rumours circulate about Partage Saint-François (PSF) across the street. One camp occupant is angry that he can’t use their beds anymore because he got angry and accused people of stealing his stuff. Another is excited for an afternoon appointment. He is pretty sure he will be accepted into a long term bed in the reintegration program. Someone claims the PSF is closed and the beds are empty. Others gesture that they do not want to talk to a reporter or are grabbing some sleep in tents now before the cold of night sets in.
Dave Dupuis-Beaudette is passing through to get some food and gather any loose bike parts. He says he tends to avoid the camp at night. He prefers to pitch his tent in some woods and gestures downriver. He says he hates the sound drivers revving their motors or honking their horns at the camp as they speed past the camp on Wellington at night.
Sébastien Roussel-Konan is called off the sidewalk by a friend in the camp. Like Dave, he does not use the camp. He has found a friend nearby. He complains of changes to laws governing appeals to eviction notices. Dave and he both complain of landlords and the complex process to avoid eviction when you can’t pay and have nowhere to go. Fines on fines, costs of lawyers, lawyers that refuse to take a case, processes for appealing lawyers not taking your case.
“I don’t understand how they can put people on the street during a pandemic in the winter,” says Roussel-Konan. “When you can’t pay your electrical bill, Hydro Quebec will even come and reconnect it in when it gets cold and arrange payment plans. But it’s not like that for evictions. The tribunals will put you out on the street where you can freeze to death.”
At the PSF Comptoir charity shop, an employee calls the general director Sebastien Laberge, who is the only person to address media inquiries. Laberge is out of the office on vacation but answers an email in short order.
“First, people need to understand that the presence of the people under the bridge has nothing to do with the closures at Partage Saint-François,” says Laberge. “The problem at PSF is a lack of staff, and that has led to a reduction of some services on some nights.”
“But we’ve only been closed on four nights this year,” he explains. “So, our full regime of services is available, like usual. There have been no closures this week. There were no closures last week. We don’t expect any closures in the next month, not before the holidays.”
Laberge says that his organization has between 50-60 beds. Of those, 23 are emergency beds, and of these five are “sobering up” beds, so 18 regular overnight spots. “When we did have closures, it was just the emergency beds. For the people in medium term beds, working to establish stability and engaged in the reintegration process, we found ways to maintain accommodations for those people.”
Laberge’s organization serves between 400-500 different people each a year. Some, for just a week or month, others for the full year. He says estimates count between 500-1,000 people experience homelessness or housing precarity each year. Counterintuitively, his services may be more highly trafficked in summer because the threats of winter push people to find a more stable solution.
During the early phases of the pandemic, he notes that demand for his services crashed while people were receiving monthly subsidies from the government. He agrees that period could be described as an experiment with a form of universal basic income, “Almost, yes. All of a sudden there was hardly anyone coming to the shelter.”
As to why the camp has appeared across the street, Laberge says “Those people are there, because they want to be there.”
“People will tell all kinds of stories about they are there but there’s nobody in the camp that doesn’t have the right to come into PSF or to go take advantage of other resources.”
“There are more and more people who are sheltering there,” he admits. “But if they shelter there it is because there are more and more people who are bringing them supplies. More and more citizens who think that they are doing good bringing coats, tents, wood, food and all kinds of things. But in the end what it means people stay there and they are creating a kind of ghetto.”
“People are in the process of installing themselves more and more permanently. The city even brought them a chemical toilet.”
Laberge feels that drug use and mental health issues are common among the camp occupants.
“There are limits that we cannot cross, and often these are people who are not cooperating with the services offered to them,” says Laberge, listing examples like expecting nonviolence and expecting showers and laundered clothing when people come in. “If someone brings in bedbugs, I have to close the whole dormitory.”
Laberge agrees that homelessness is a growing problem, but that it is a slowly growing problem, not something which has exploded in recent weeks or months. He agrees that visibility of the problem has exploded, however.
“This is not a new phenomenon. The services at PSF have been full for years. The shelter was full five years ago, and it is still full now,” Laberge said.
“These people have been there for years. It’s just that when you pitch a tent you are much more visible than when you sleep next to a post in a sleeping bag.”
“Indeed, there is a serious problem in Quebec. Our streets are an open asylum,” says Laberge. “Itinerancy is a mental health problem. Technically, it’s not that the services are not good. Mental health services are very weak.”
“It’s not a problem of services, it’s a more problem of societal choices.”