An hour’s drive north of Montreal and at the doorway to Laurentian ski and cottage country, St-Jérôme, Que., seems an unlikely focal point for the debate over homelessness.
But a lawsuit against the town over its ban on makeshift shelters on public property could transform how municipalities across the province approach homeless encampments on their territory.
If successful, the lawsuit filed by a legal clinic that advocates for unhoused Quebecers, could bring about an end to the practice of forced tent dismantling in cities and towns where there is insufficient alternative accommodation, says University of Ottawa law professor Marie-Ève Sylvestre.
While courts in British Columbia and Ontario have already issued similar rulings, Sylvestre says Quebec lacks clarity on municipalities’ legal power to clear camps.
The St-Jérôme case, Sylvestre said in an interview, “has the potential of being a landmark case in Quebec for the right to shelter.”
At issue are a collection of municipal bylaws that ban the erection of non-recreational tents or other informal structures in public spaces without approval from the town. In documents filed in Quebec Superior Court in December, the Clinique juridique itinérante argues the regulations should be declared unconstitutional because they violate homeless people’s right to life, liberty and security of the person as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The organization points to a disparity between the size of the local homeless population and the number of emergency shelter beds: the clinic estimates between 40 and 50 homeless people sleep outside every night in St-Jérôme, but there are only six beds designated for overnight stays, all of them located in a shelter near the town centre. That space, called La Hutte, also offers 50 beds for medium-term stays and an overnight warming facility with room for around 50 people, the municipality says.
The lack of emergency beds leaves many homeless people “no choice but to sleep outdoors,” the lawsuit states. Those individuals have also faced efforts by the town to dismantle their shelters and fine them for bylaw violations. The clinic notes an October 2022 incident in which police officers issued more than $12,000 in fines to 16 people who were camping in a public park.
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Such forced evictions, particularly during the winter, represent “a major disruption and trauma that can have aggravating effects for people who are already highly 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 shelter space and an accumulation of fines from police have compounded what he describes as an already gruelling situation. He says most of the fines he has received are simply due to the realities of homelessness: sleeping outside, placing personal belongings on public property and at times becoming so exhausted that observers have mistaken his lethargy for public intoxication.
“I’m always getting fines that I’m unable to pay,” he said Thursday inside a day centre and kitchen run by the Salvation Army. “I’m trying to pick myself up, but on the other side, the people who should be helping me trip me and I fall.”
Local homeless service provider Chantal Dumont says another consequence of the bylaws has been the displacement of unhoused people throughout the town, which can make it harder to maintain critical relationships and locate people who need help.
Dumont works for Le Book Humanitaire, a non-profit that cares for vulnerable people in the Laurentians region. She and her team go up and down local streets every day checking on homeless people.
“It’s very difficult,” she said in an interview. “The bond of trust is built by small actions (of service) and the consistency of those actions. But then you might arrive the next day and the person has been evicted,” she continued. “Do they think we were looking for them? That we didn’t find them? Do they think we just forgot about them?”
Dumont says the services for vulnerable people in St-Jérôme haven’t kept up with a homeless population in the region that at least doubled between 2018 and 2022, according to Quebec’s last tally.
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 bylaw also bans cooking or heating appliances that use non-solid fuel.
St-Jérôme Mayor Marc Bourcier said in the release that the town hopes to further collaborate with community organizations that serve the homeless population, as well as with health officials. “But it cannot take the place of the (provincial) Health and Social Services Department in assuming its responsibilities to 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 homeless people, pointing to recent investments in La Hutte and the creation of a new 12-bed shelter in the Laurentians region. That shelter is in Ste-Thérèse, about 25 kilometres south of St-Jérôme.
“As minister Carmant often says, the goal is to reverse the trend in homelessness, and to do so, we’ll need the collaboration of all the stakeholders involved in the fight against homelessness,” the statement Friday from Lambert Drainville reads.
The Clinique juridique itinérante had sought an emergency injunction on the dismantling of homeless camps in St-Jérôme, but a judge denied that request on Jan. 5. The clinic declined to comment on its lawsuit while the case is before the court.
© 2024 The Canadian Press