The death of a homeless man overnight Saturday has spurred some advocates to call for more resources and has served as a reminder to others that too many people are still spending their nights on Montreal's frigid streets.
Raphael André, a 51-year-old Innu man, was found dead Sunday morning inside a portable toilet near Milton St. and Parc Ave. — a short walk from The Open Door, a drop-in centre he frequented.
Beds had been available at the drop-in centre until recently when public health officials trying to quell a COVID-19 outbreak in the homeless community ordered it closed at 9:30 every night, forcing visitors to seek shelter elsewhere.
There were beds available in some Montreal homeless shelters on Saturday night, but André didn't find his way to one. The province's coroner is now investigating how he ended up dead in a cold, blue port-a-potty instead.
"He was a person who had a family and who was loved," said Heather Johnston, the executive director of Projets Autochtones du Québec. André spent Friday night at a PAQ shelter, where he even had a COVID-19 test. He was well-known to the community there.
Johnston blamed systemic failures, not a lack of emergency shelter space, for André's death.
"I see the services that are out there and they're not perfect, but on Saturday night there was space for Mr. André at PAQ. He knew PAQ. He wasn't in hiding. He was at the shelter almost every night," she said. "The answer is housing. It's wraparound housing for people with drug and alcohol addictions or people with mental health problems, and it's about getting them into long-term housing and giving them the supports they need to be able to live independently."
Other advocates say André's death is a sign of how the homeless have been ignored during the COVID-19 pandemic and insist that it demonstrates the need for more safe spaces for them to spend their nights, and for reinforcements for shelter staff and community groups whose staff are stretched thin.
"We're not taking care of the vulnerable — except for the organizations that are doing the work," said Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal.
When Premier François Legault announced a province-wide 8 p.m. curfew, he said there were enough shelter beds for Montreal's homeless to spend their nights, but Nakuset said she worries more people could die if more resources are not mobilized soon.
"I knew this was going to happen eventually," she said. "Why can't the municipal, provincial and federal governments all get together and say 'we have an action plan, we're going to help,' instead of just ignoring and putting your head in the sand and saying 'there's no problem, there's lots of room. Everyone's fine.' ... Get your army or your Red Cross to come in and help us like you would in a third-world country."
André was well-known in Montreal's homeless community. At the corner of Milton St. and Parc Ave. on Monday evening, as temperatures began to dip below minus-10C, one man remembered him as a kindred spirit who sometimes hung out in the area.
"He was a nice guy all the time. Every day," he said.
André's death, so close to the spot where his friends still spend much of their time, has shaken the nerves of others who frequent the area near The Open Door. "We found a dead body this morning," one woman said. "It's scary."
Matthew Lapierre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Gazette