Over the weekend in Montreal, a homeless man was found dead inside of a portable toilet—only steps away from a drop-in centre where he frequently stayed.
The body of Raphaël André, a 51-year-old Innu man according to CBC News, was discovered Sunday morning inside of a portable toilet nearby The Open Door, a Montreal drop-in centre. André had reportedly been there on Saturday, but was kicked out at 9:30 p.m. due to an order from the city’s health authority. Foul play has been ruled out and his death is now the subject of a coroner’s investigation.
A day after the news broke, Quebec Premier Francois Legault swatted away a plea from the city’s mayor, Valerié Plante, to have an exemption made for homeless people living under the province’s COVID-19 curfew, which gives law enforcement the power to ticket people who are outside of their homes between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Plante, who made the request at a news conference Monday morning, said that the curfew was “creating a sense of insecurity” for those who rely on social welfare services such as shelters, needle exchanges, and general outreach.
“What we’ve been seeing in the last week (with the curfew), it created a lot of stress,” Plante said, not just for homeless people, but for those who work closely with the homeless and those with addictions.
“That’s not what I want for Montreal. I want for people to feel safe in the streets,” she said.
Later that day, Legault defended his decision to not exempt homeless people from the curfew, arguing that people could simply “pretend” to be homeless in order to bypass law enforcement.
“Right now, the police are doing a very good job,” said Legault. “They’re using their judgment and if we change the rule and say, ‘You cannot give tickets to somebody who says they are homeless,’ you may have some people that will pretend to be homeless.”
In Ontario, the implementation of an emergency “stay-at-home” order by Premier Doug Ford’s government last week did not include a curfew, and exempts homeless people from fines. However, the government has noted that it gives police officers full discretion in choosing why and who to give tickets to.
According to Greg Cook, an outreach worker at the Toronto drop-in centre The Sanctuary, the reason that homeless people go into portable toilets is because they are one of the few remaining publicly accessible facilities that offer both privacy (to go to the bathroom or to use drugs) and protection from the elements.
Cook acknowledges these were issues prior to the pandemic, but said that they have gotten worse now that COVID-19 restrictions have depleted the number of available public bathrooms, which means many portable toilets are overflowing and poorly taken care of.
“I mean, think about it: they stink; there’s no room to move around, let alone go to the bathroom. But they block the wind, and so people choose to spend the night inside of there instead (of staying outside). That’s where we’re at in Toronto.”
Despite experiencing a relatively mild winter so far (although a polar vortex is on the way, bringing much colder temperatures), Megan Lowry, a nurse who works regularly with people experiencing homelessness, says she has tended to a “dramatic increase” of frostbite cases in recent weeks. Like Cook, she says a lack of publicly available warm spaces for homeless people to find refuge in—from coffee shops to libraries—have meant more and more people are spending entire days and nights outside in sub-zero temperatures.
Lowry says anecdotally the number of homeless people living outdoors has increased dramatically. She also also added that, unlike in past years, she is seeing a huge number of “first-timers”—people who had, prior to this year, never been homeless before, and therefore have little understanding of how to survive outdoors.
“Frostbite is all about prevention,” Lowry said. “We’re seeing a lot of cases of frostbite in fingers and toes—people who are probably going to experience a lifelong reduction in mobility—because they can’t access a warm place to sleep, and can’t get the care they need.”
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