Judge Orders Quebec to Halt Homeless Evictions
Ruling "sets a precedent" against evictions, orders government to find permanent housing for the unhoused
Sabrina sauntered along a chain link fence under the highway, walking past dusty tents and mounds of discarded cans before she settled into her home.
This is where Sabrina has laid her head almost every night for the past eight years.
Down here, in the bowels of the city, Sabrina keeps the encampment going season after season, surviving eviction attempts, police raids, overdoses and winters so cold they’ve killed at least two of her friends. Down here — where the closest thing to a toilet is a five-gallon pail — is where Sabrina was living when she found out she was pregnant last month.
“Before the baby, I was smoking crack and drinking 10.1’s all the time,” said Sabrina, referring to the king cans of 10.1% beer that are popular on the streets. “I wanted to quit cold turkey but I was shaking so bad. So I’ve slowed down and now I have the odd drink so I stop shaking. I was an alcoholic for a long, long time. You don’t just stop. Your body won’t let you.
“But I want to do this right, I stopped smoking crack and I’m going to stop drinking altogether when my body can handle it. I want to be a mother. I want to work, maybe get a job in construction and live in an apartment.
“But right now, this (camp) is all I have.”
Like the other 14 residents of the encampment under Ville Marie Expressway, Sabrina spent hours on Tuesday waiting to find out if her home would be bulldozed. Quebec’s Transport Ministry wants to clear the camp so that construction crews can begin work on a $37 million contract to repair the overpass.
But unlike previous eviction attempts, Sabrina and her neighbours fought this one in court. And after three days of court arguments, her side won. Late Tuesday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Chantal Masse ordered the Quebec government to suspend the eviction for 10 days. Masse also mandated the Transport Ministry to work with public health officials so they could find suitable homes for the encampment’s residents.
In her 22-page ruling, the judge concluded that evictions would put “extremely vulnerable” people’s lives at risk. Clearing the camp would have displaced Sabrina, who is three months pregnant, but also a man undergoing radiation treatment for lung cancer and another man who is dying of a blood infection.
Furthermore, Masse found that the ministry reneged on a promise to help residents of the encampment find homes instead of evicting them. That pledge, made last November, was followed by five months of “inaction” on the part of the government. There wasn’t so much as an attempt to talk with residents of the encampment until March, when representatives from the Transport Ministry marched into camp and told everyone they had to vacate before the end of the month.
It took a lawsuit from the encampment to force the government to the table.
“The day after they filed legal proceedings, the very next day, that’s when representatives from public health came down to check on the camp for the first time,” said David Chapman, director of the nearby Resilience Montreal homeless shelter. “It’s been more than six months since any government social worker has been under the highway. Now that construction is about to begin, now the Transport Ministry cares all of a sudden.”
Tuesday’s ruling is the second reprieve the courts have given the encampment. Last month, crown attorneys and lawyers representing the camp agreed to suspend legal proceedings so they could work on finding a home for those facing eviction. But the government waited until the end of the reprieve before attempting to negotiate. With no solutions at hand, both parties were back in court last week.
Donald Tremblay, whose legal clinic represented the encampment in court, says that as of Wednesday afternoon, there’s been no attempt by the government to abide by Masse’s ruling.
“The phone hasn’t rung yet, so we don’t know whether the government will do its duty here,” said Tremblay, founder of the Clinique Juridique Itinérante, which represents the encampment. “We’re preparing to be back in court in 10 days. We won this inning but we’re trying to win the game. For now, all I can say is the judge set a precedent here. The judge ruled that it’s against a person’s right to dignity, safety and life to be evicted from an encampment without an alternative in place.”
Under the highway Tuesday morning, two police officers stood across from Sabrina and her boyfriend Enzo, eagerly awaiting news from the court.
A ruling was expected by 10 a.m. but as lunchtime rolled around, there was still no word from Masse’s office.
Had the eviction gone through, the officers would have seen years of work go down the drain. The foot patrolmen act as a buffer between residents of the encampment and the police department, often working on solutions that don’t end with someone being carted off to jail.
“I’ve arrested maybe one person here in four years,” said Mike. “We can’t do that here, we have to focus on coming up with compromises, on listening, on making sure everyone has enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. There have been troublemakers in the camp before but they never last long. People don’t tolerate that here. They mostly just want to be left alone.”
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While awaiting their orders, the officers struck up a conversation with Sabrina and Enzo about her pregnancy. Was she getting enough to eat? Was her morning sickness any better? When is her next doctor’s appointment?
For most people living in the shadow of the Ville Marie, this is the only government service they consistently have access to — two officers who, despite their best intentions, are not trained social workers and can’t offer much beyond small acts of mercy. In Montreal, the unhoused account for less than 1 per cent of the island’s population but nearly half of the tickets issued by police.
Fines for loitering or sleeping in the metro can add up into the thousands of dollars, preventing people from getting a job, having a credit score good enough to get an apartment and lifting themselves out of extreme poverty. This, in itself, becomes one of the biggest obstacles for people looking for a way off the streets.
“So far, the only apartment we can afford is $1,000 a month for one room in a boarding house,” said Enzo. “We could get something far, far away in the East End or way out west. But our life is here, we have Resilience Montreal just up the hill. They help us eat, they take us to medical appointments. If we get an apartment far away, we lose all of our support and our community. And you can’t raise a child in a boarding house.”
Chapman says that, for most, the best they can hope for is to be put on a list for subsidized housing — which has been massively de-funded by the Coalition Avenir Québec government. With no new social housing projects on the horizon, people often wait for years before something opens up.
For someone like Sabrina, who is 43, pregnant and recovering from a substance abuse disorder, finding an apartment could mean the difference between keeping her baby and losing it to child protective services. She’s on the road to sobriety but the pull of street life is ever present.
“I mean, you try living under here — with all the cars screaming by up there, never knowing if you’ll be kicked out, never knowing what tomorrow brings — and staying sober,” Enzo said. “We fight everyday just to survive. That’s a lot of stress on a couple. Especially with a baby coming.”
Despite these obstacles, the government has argued that people like Sabrina aren’t doing enough to help themselves. Crown attorney Nancy Brûlé presented the court with a sworn affidavit from a government social worker last week, claiming she can only help people if they come to her. And no one from under the highway has made the first step.
“I’m flabbergasted by that argument,” said Masse. “With all of the struggles they face, these people won’t necessarily go get help. Does this mean the social worker is just sitting in her office waiting? We need a much more proactive attitude.”
Throughout the hearings, Michel Chabot sat in the back of the courtroom as he watched Crown lawyers try to justify putting him out on the street. They pressed forward with this argument despite knowing of Chabot’s life-threatening illness.
“One of our clients goes to radiation therapy three times a week, he has lost 33 pounds since his diagnosis,” said Anabel Semerdzhieva, Chabot’s lawyer. “Should we expect him to look for an apartment alone, while he’s tired and weak from his treatment?”
Just as she made that argument, Chabot leaned over to me and whispered that, in fact, he’d only lost 27 pounds since his diagnosis a few months back. Though he’s been close to losing hope, news that Chabot’s daughter will give birth later this year has given Chabot something to fight for. It also helps that he has a sense of humour.
“It’s a good thing there’s a bathroom on this floor because I’ve heard my share of bullshit for one day,” he said, outside the courtroom. “I’m fighting for the right to die with a roof over my head. They’re fighting against that. It’s a hell of a world we’re living in.”
In fairness, Brûlé is merely following orders and can’t help that the government she represents isn’t engaging with the encampment. Her job is to stand in court and make the government’s arguments. So far, the CAQ hasn’t given Brûlé much to work with.
Tremblay said he’s working with Liberal MNA Jennifer Macaronne to put a petition supporting Sabrina, Enzo and the others on the National Assembly’s website.
“We’re asking for Quebecers to sign the petition and support our plan to transition these people into permanent housing,” said Tremblay. “We’re not asking for perfect apartments right away but there’s a long term plan in place where we could lodge people in motels until we can find something more permanent.”
When reached for comment, Macaronne said it’s the government’s “moral obligation” to treat people like Chabot with dignity.
“Access to subsidized housing, with support, is essential,” said Macaronne, who represents the residents of the west downtown encampment in the National Assembly. “I’ve been numerous times to visit the residents of the encampment over the years. They deserve to be treated with dignity. I hope that when the petition is deposited in the National Assembly, the CAQ will agree to study it and take action.”
Canada’s Federal Housing Advocate said she’s encouraged by Masse’s ruling but urged the CAQ to negotiate in good faith and find “solutions that respect people’s dignity and provide long-term housing security.”
“Forcing residents to move from one location to another will not solve the problem, and it will put them further at risk,” said Marie-Josee Houle, the Federal Housing Advocate. “
Government representatives were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
This marked the second time Judge Masse struck down the CAQ’s inhumane approach to homelessness. Two years ago, the provincial government fought to fine the homelessness as part of its COVID-19 response. Using emergency powers granted during the pandemic, the CAQ sought to impose ticket anyone caught outside after 9 p.m. — a violation of its COVID curfew. This effectively criminalized homelessness.
In a lawsuit contesting the curfew, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia successfully challenged $3,100 in fines for violating the curfew. Masse ordered the police to exempt unhoused people from such infractions.
As residents waited to learn their fate Tuesday, a tension settled over the camp.
A half-dozen people hustled to gather their belongings lest they be scooped up by a forklift and dumped into a container the following morning. That’s what happened to Chabot when he lived in a camp south of downtown last summer.
“They took everything I had in the world,” he said. “Imagine that, the last pictures I had of my dead children were wiped off this earth. This will be the third time I’m evicted from a camp in less than one year. I can’t go through that again. Not with my health the way it is.”
When news of the ruling finally reached the camp around 5:30 pm., Tremblay visited his clients and a mood of cautious optimism shone through.
The only other time Sabrina was pregnant on the streets, she lost the baby. If she could get help finding a place, that would help alleviate her fears. Sabrina is a fighter, the way the bridge of her nose crooks slightly to the right can attest to that. But above all, it is her warmth and her willingness to fight for her street family that’s helped her survive all these years.
Now she’s asking for one lucky break. For the residents of the encampment, for Enzo, for her unborn child.
“We just need a little push,” she said. “I’m not asking for much more than a roof over our heads. A place we can actually call home.”