Homelessness problem in Montreal becomes political controversy after YouTube video goes viral

There is something genuinely disturbing about the video posted by good Samaritan Adis Simidzija on Youtube last week, depicting shivering homeless man being scolded like a child by an abusive member of Montreal’s police force.  Ironically, the homeless man in question (he has yet to be identified) is being reprimanded for supposedly panhandling aggressively, by a menacing police officer, who himself is reproached by a concerned citizen who happened to be documenting the whole thing and intervenes when the officer threatens to tie him to a pole as punishment.

Incidents such as this, probably happen all the time in Montreal, and generally fly under the radar of media or the general public.  Homeless men, women and children are the object of scorn or worse from passersby.  I myself once witnessed a young man spit on a gentleman sleeping on the stairs while riding the escalator at Guy-Concordia metro station.  In fact, it has practically become the norm in our city, and everywhere else, to ignore the people struggling to survive in the shadows of our everyday routines.  This time, however, the situation was captured on a smartphone video and uploaded to the internet where it promptly blew-up and caused such outrage that Montreal’s police force was forced to respond via twitter promising to look into the matter and discipline the officer involved.

They weren’t  the only ones that took notice.  No less than his Honour the Mayor of Montreal tweeted his disapproval (notice the pattern here in terms of public relations strategies employed by the Mayor and the SPVM) at the handling of the situation by the police officer.  To his credit, it wasn’t the first time that Mr. Coderre had raise the matter.  He had previously mentioned that his administration would make combating homelessness in the city a priority and, subsequent to his election, named city councillor Monique Vallée to his executive committee putting her in charge of social and community development and adding, for the first time, homelessness to her files.

Admirable though such indignation maybe, it does little to improve the lot of Montreal’s homeless, and the fact that it takes something as ugly as this episode, for our politicians and other public officials to promise to do something to improve relations between the homeless community and the police, is really quite sad.

The facts about the growing problem of homelessness, which mirror that of any other major city, are well-documented, though sometimes contentious.  According to RAPSIM’s website, there has been an 25% increase in demand for beds at men’s shelters, over the last 5 years.  Conversely, women’s shelters have been forced to turn people away, due to a lack of resources.  The problem reflects the increasing diversity of the city with disproportionate numbers of immigrants and aboriginal people among the worst victims.  It is worth noting the city’s concerted efforts to maintain the social housing stocks over the past decade, despite a disturbing trend among the Feds to cut government subsidies for social housing.

The lack of affordable housing is becoming particularly acute with the massive condoization of Montreal that the city has seen over the same period.  Not to mention the severe clogging of the courts with cases involving fines issued by the police to members of the homeless community (the number of such legal actions at the free legal clinic Clinique Droits Devant have now surpassed 1,200!).

If the Coderre administration and the Montreal police are serious about actually doing something to help alleviate the problem of homelessness , perhaps they could begin by addressing the issue of so called “social profiling” among frontline cops?  A report released by the SPVM which proposed clearer guidelines for interactions with the homeless for the force in 2011, is a step in the right direction, but is not enough.  The action plan must be implemented without delay.  Otherwise, incidents like last week may become more and more common, with the predictable and often empty expressions of concern coming from our city’s leadership.


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Follow David DesBaillets on twitter @DDesBaillets.


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