Quebec lawsuit could limit dismantling of homeless camps in the province

Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press

Published Sunday, January 28, 2024 7:39 pm EST

An hour’s drive north of Montreal and on the doorstep of the Laurentian ski and cabin area, St-Jérôme, Que., seems an unlikely focal point for the debate over homelessness.

But a lawsuit against the city over its ban on building makeshift shelters on public property could transform the way municipalities in the province address homeless encampments on their territory.

If successful, the lawsuit brought by a legal clinic that defends homeless Quebecers could end the practice of forced dismantling of tents in cities and towns where there is insufficient alternative accommodation, says Marie-Ève ​​​​Sylvestre, professor of law at the University of Ottawa.

While courts in British Columbia and Ontario have already issued similar rulings, Sylvestre says Quebec lacks clarity on the legal power of municipalities to clear fields.

The St-Jérôme case, Sylvestre said in an interview, “has the potential to be a landmark case in Quebec for the right to housing.”

At issue is a collection of city bylaws that prohibit the construction of non-recreational tents or other informal structures in public spaces without city approval. In documents filed with the Quebec Superior Court in December, the Clinique juridique itinérante argues that the regulations should be declared unconstitutional because they violate the right of homeless people to life, liberty and security of the person enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The organization notes a disparity between the size of the local homeless population and the number of beds in emergency shelters: the clinic estimates that between 40 and 50 homeless people sleep outdoors every night in St-Jérôme, but there are only six beds designated for overnight stays. , all of them located in a hostel near the urban area. This space, called La Hutte, also offers 50 beds for medium-term stays and a night-time heating facility with capacity for about 50 people, according to the municipality.

The lack of emergency beds leaves many homeless people “with no choice but to sleep outdoors,” the lawsuit states. Those people have also faced efforts by the city to dismantle their shelters and fine them for bylaw violations. The clinic points to an incident in October 2022 in which police officers issued fines of more than $12,000 to 16 people who were camping in a public park.

These forced evictions, especially during the winter, represent “a major disruption and trauma that can have compounding effects for people who are already very vulnerable,” the clinic states in court documents.

Alain Laliberté, a 58-year-old St-Jérôme resident who has been homeless for eight years, says the lack of space at a shelter and the piling up of fines from police have exacerbated what he describes as an already exhausting He says most of the tickets he’s received are simply due to the realities of homelessness: sleeping outside, placing personal belongings on public property and sometimes becoming so exhausted that observers have mistaken his lethargy for a public intoxication.

“I always get fines I can’t pay,” he said Thursday inside a day center and kitchen run by the Salvation Army. “I’m trying to get up, but on the other side, the people who should be helping me trip me and I fall.”

Chantal Dumont, a local homeless services provider, says another consequence of the bylaws has been the displacement of homeless people throughout the city, which can make it difficult to maintain critical relationships and locate people who need help. Dumont works for Le Book Humanitaire, a non-profit organization that cares for vulnerable people in the Laurentians region. She and her team walk the local streets every day checking on the homeless.

“It’s very difficult,” he said in an interview. “The bond of trust is built with small actions (of service) and the consistency of those actions. But then you can arrive the next day and the person has been evicted,” she continued. “Do you think we were looking for them? That we didn’t find them? Do you think we just forgot about them?”

Dumont says services for vulnerable people in St-Jérôme have not kept up with a homeless population in the region that at least doubled between 2018 and 2022, according to Quebec’s latest count.

In a news release Wednesday, St-Jérôme defended its 2022 bylaw banning tents and temporary shelters in public spaces, saying the intent is to reduce the risk of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. The regulation also prohibits cooking or heating appliances that use non-solid fuels.

St-Jérôme Mayor Marc Bourcier said in the statement that the city hopes to continue collaborating with community organizations that serve the homeless population, as well as health officials. “But it cannot replace the (provincial) Department of Health and Social Services in assuming its responsibilities towards the population,” Bourcier said.

In response, a spokesperson for Lionel Carmant, Quebec’s minister responsible for social services, said the government is committed to providing care and services to the homeless, highlighting recent investments in La Hutte and the creation of a new homeless shelter. 12 beds in the Laurentinas. region. That shelter is in Ste-Thérèse, about 25 kilometers south of St-Jérôme.

“As Minister Carmant often says, the goal is to reverse the trend of homelessness and, to do so, we will need the collaboration of all actors involved in the fight against homelessness,” reads a Friday statement from Lambert Drainville.

The Clinique juridique itinérante had requested an emergency court order for the dismantling of the homeless encampments in St-Jérôme, but a judge denied that request on January 5. The clinic declined to comment on her lawsuit while the case is before the court.

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