The Rover: people will do the right thing
You just need to give them a chance
Nora whizzed between us on her tricycle, and my brother cracked open a can of beer for me.
It was a perfect summer day.
The three of us stood on the warm pavement where, years ago, Vincent and I would practice jump shots under the flickering street lights. Back then, the basketball would float just beyond the glare and disappear for a moment. It was as though it had been swallowed by the night. Of course, it always came crashing back down to earth.
By the time my brother moved out, our basketball net was rusted and jangly, waiting for a hard enough layup to keel over and die.
The net is gone now, and my brother lives in our childhood home with his family.
Nora, my niece, screamed, “Watch me, Tito,” and we shouted half-hearted encouragement at her between gulps of beer.
My phone rang. It was a source who worked at a homeless shelter downtown.
“We can’t find one of our clients. She might be dead,” said John. “Can you check with the hospitals? Call the police? Her name is Siasi. She’s 26 or 27.”
The system had never worked for Siasi. The young woman had come to Montreal from an Inuit village where overcrowded housing and poverty were the norm. She came south and found the city wasn’t much more welcoming.
Siasi fell in with a tough crowd on the western edge of Montreal, surviving on sex work and with the help of other young women who’d made the desperate trip south. People in the neighbourhood remembered a kind, occasionally withdrawn young woman, someone who was preyed upon by drug dealers and an abusive boyfriend. Someone who’d tried to get sober, who wanted out of street life.
She was found dead on Aug. 28, hanging from the railing of a townhouse near Atwater Ave. None of her friends believed she killed herself.
And just as the system had failed Siasi in life, it was failing her again now that she’d died. Police wrote her death off as a suicide, ignoring signs that pointed to murder. Another street kid gone.
A reporter from VICE News and I started to pick apart the police’s suicide theory.
First there were claims that she’d last been seen with two men — one was a boyfriend with a violent criminal record, the other a client who took her away in a silver car — less than two hours before she died. It took police three weeks to interview people who knew Siasi and could corroborate that testimony.
Then there was a police report, documenting a 911 call from Siasi, who told the operator her life was being threatened. That was just hours before she died. VICE reporter Brigitte Noël uncovered that. It struck us both as strange that someone would ask police to save her and then take her own life on the same night.
Detectives reopened the case weeks after Siasi died, but it was too late. Key witnesses skipped town and others weren’t interested in working with the cops anymore.
When I first heard of Siasi on that afternoon with Vincent and my niece, it hadn’t occurred to me that this one phone call would change my life. But it did. I remember looking at little Nora and realizing how many opportunities she’d have laid out before her.
She’s a brilliant kid, who likes to take things apart and put them back together. Nora thrives with structure and — even though she’s a scrappy, hard-working kid — she’ll have the luxury of following the same kind of path that my brother, sister and I did.
This isn’t a path that often leads to the gutter.
“What was that all about?” Vincent asked.
“Work stuff,” I replied.
There have been too many dead to count since Siasi was killed in 2017.
Their lives are commemorated in street funerals, memorial services in a church basement and pictures that hang on the wall of the Open Door shelter on Parc Ave. It’s a way of letting their street family know that they matter, that they deserve to be grieved, that their lives have meaning.
There was a street worker called Zack Ingles who played "Amazing Grace" on his acoustic guitar at the Open Door services. Some had relatives attend; others had long ago lost touch with their family and relied on the kindness of peers to set them on their way to the afterlife (if you believe in that sort of thing).
Lizzy from Salluit was always a great eulogist: heartfelt and funny, willing to look the bereaved in the eye and let them know their estranged loved one had moments of brilliance, even in the brutal day-to-day of street life.
Ingles’ colleague David Chapman read from Psalms and Ecclesiastes:
“Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me”
“To every thing, there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven. … a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap.”
It takes you a few times to realize that the Ecclesiastes passage is also a Byrds song. The Old Testament is full of open source poetry.
Since Siasi, I’ve tried to be there for the living and the dead among Montreal’s homeless community, to document their lives, to put a human face on the public health crisis that is homelessness.
Mostly, people are responsive to the work. I’ve had a federal cabinet minister, provincial politicians and two city mayors reach out and offer to help. A few weeks back, the union workers at Air Canada cargo put together truckloads of winter clothing for homeless folk in and around western downtown. Sometimes all we need is a chance to do the right thing.
People do get out of the life. They get sober, find an apartment, and some even come back to try to get their friends into a detox program.
As far as I know, Lizzy is living in the east end with her boyfriend. She rarely comes back around Atwater Ave. I miss her humour. She had great comedic timing, stopping herself mid-sentence to shoot you a grimace you couldn’t help but laugh at.
I’m glad Lizzy isn’t around to see how bad things have gotten in her old stomping grounds.
To steal a phrase from the funeral psalm, the spectre of death casts a long shadow over Montreal’s homeless. More than 100 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-December. About half of them are Indigenous and some have respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis, dramatically increasing their chances of dying.
Making matters worse, there’s been a dramatic spike in Montreal’s homeless population since the pandemic was declared 11 months ago. Last year, Mayor Valérie Plante said there may be thousands more people sleeping outside every night compared to 2018, when a study found about 3,150 people homeless in Montreal.
You might say this is the great untold story of COVID-19. The virus has sent shockwaves through Canada’s economy, trickling its way down to the streets of our major cities.
Now, as we hunker down for yet another lockdown, homeless people are facing fines of up to $6,000 if they’re found outside after 8 p.m. Try figuring that one out. We gave it a shot right here:
Here’s a story about the initial COVID-19 outbreak among the homeless:
— > https://ricochet.media/en/3424/worst-case-scenario-covid-19-outbreak-hits-montreal-homeless-shelters
This is our fight now and I’m glad to have you along.
The lockdown and curfew imposed by Quebec’s government this week will also pose challenges to this project. Until cases begin to drop significantly, I won’t be travelling to Val-d’Or anymore. That would be irresponsible.
For now, we’ll focus our attention on COVID-19 and the stories of those most vulnerable to the pandemic. I’m grateful to be doing this work.
I wanted to thank the dozens of kind folk who took advantage of our holiday sale to sign up for the newsletter. You’re helping us fight the good fight.
Though we didn’t reach our goal of 60 new subscriptions in a week, we came close. So I’ll have to figure out a stunt that isn’t as life-threatening as rocket skis but still fun and potentially bone-breaking. We must suffer for our art.
In the meantime, check out some of the older newsletters on rover.substack.com and the work you’ve funded at Ricochet Media. If you’re stuck inside, you might as well read something you paid for, right?