To Live and Die on the Streets of Montreal
After another death on the streets, we take a closer look at homelessness west of downtown.
They found his body in a tent under the Ville-Marie Expressway.
Nico had deep set eyes and a smile that softened the edges of his face. The amulet of Saint Catherine the martyr dangled from his neck always. He would pull it out from under his shirt sometimes and tell you it guided him through life.
When Nico told a story, which he often did, he would lose himself in the act, doing impressions and gesturing wildly with his arms until the narrative reached its climax. Everywhere he went, his black dog Tommy followed, wagging his tail and begging everyone to play fetch with him.
Nico brought warmth to the homeless encampment under Ville-Marie Expressway. Now his memory haunts the camp just like the others who died there before him. Nico died of a fentanyl overdose three months ago, leaving behind Tommy and a dozen unhoused people who called him brother. The wound still feels fresh.
“The worst part is, I don’t even have a photo of him,” Nancy told me, during a visit to the camp last week. “He was my brother”
“Your biological brother?” I asked.
“My street brother. Many of us don’t really talk to our biological families anymore. He was part of the family we made out here.”
In a few weeks, police will descend on the encampment off Atwater Ave. and clear out whoever still lives there. There will be warnings beforehand and street workers will accompany police to mediate the eviction. They’ll even provide a list of overnight shelters they can stay in that evening.
But no matter how polite the eviction is, it’s still an eviction. When it’s over, the people who sought shelter in the concrete overpass will have to pack up and find another place to live. Most will choose to keep taking their chances outside. Even if people freeze to death — which happens every winter — many still feel it’s a better option than sleeping in a crowded shelter without their spouse or dog.
The push to clear the encampment is coming from residents just down the hill in Saint-Henri, where a day shelter called Resilience Montreal is preparing to move its headquarters. Most of the shelter’s clientele is Indigenous.
“A lot of what we do is just keep people alive and try to give them hope,” said David Chapman, the program manager at Resilience Montreal. “We’ve been accused of just enabling problematic behaviour. But the truth is, you can’t get off the streets if you’re dead. You can’t go to rehab if you’re dead. So we try to keep people alive, to treat them with love and respect. Policing these people won’t solve the problem, kicking them out of an encampment won’t solve the problem.
“They’ll just go be homeless somewhere else.”
Everyone under the highway is a regular at Resilience.
It’s where they eat two warm meals a day and get patched up by a nurse who won’t give them dirty looks if they smell like alcohol. They can bathe in the day centre’s makeshift shower (a tool shed rigged with a hose that sprinkles hot water) and get a fresh set of clothes.
Resilience is a warm place for people whose circumstances are often defined by hardship. But the lease on the shelter’s west downtown building expires in July; it isn’t being renewed because the building was sold to a condo developer. And while the organization has used $7.2 million in federal and provincial grants to purchase a property across the highway in Saint-Henri, there’s no guarantee the new day centre will be ready before the current one closes.
In practical terms, there’s a risk that the hundreds of homeless people who gather in west downtown will be without services indefinitely. The last time that happened, in the winter of 2018, 14 unhoused people in the neighbourhood died. Most of those victims were Indigenous people who congregate in Cabot Square, a park outside Atwater metro.
Back then, the Anglican church that housed the neighbourhood’s only shelter was sold to make way for a condo development. Things devolved quickly. Without a support network in place, people died on park benches, in empty stairwells or under the Ville-Marie Expressway. Sexual assaults against Indigenous women also increased and police at two nearby stations saw a marked increase in 911 calls.
The Rover is a 100 per cent reader funded. If you’re into this kind of journalism, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Things got so bad that the city fast-tracked its approval of a new shelter, Resilience Montreal, and Mayor Valérie Plante had to personally intervene on the file several times.
“We can’t let this happen again,” Chapman said. “Because this time, instead of serving 150 people a day, we have twice that number looking to us for help. The scale of this crisis would be far worse than last time around.”
Chapman isn’t wrong. Just about every metric used to measure the size of Montreal’s unhoused population points to a situation that has reached critical levels.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Montreal’s homeless population has surged. The initial economic downturn of COVID-19 sent shockwaves through the city. Hundreds who were already on the verge of homelessness were pushed onto the street, and — as inflation set in — so did the cost of keeping them safe.
At Resilience, the weekly grocery bill doubled to $10,000 from before the pandemic, putting a strain on all of the day centre’s social programs. Down the hill, Welcome Hall Mission saw the number of people who used its free grocery store spike from 2,000 to 4,000 each week since the spring of 2020.
But while there’s clearly a need for Resilience Montreal in Saint-Henri, residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood say they’re nervous about the prospect of so many unhoused people moving to the area.
“From what I’ve learned, meeting with workers at Resilience, sexual assault is a huge problem for women on the street and that’s terrifying,” said Julie, who did not want her real name published. “These women deserve to be safe and if there are men preying on them, we don’t want that in our community. I’ve been the victim of sexual assault, I know what it does to your sense of self, I know what that trauma feels like.
“Right now, I don’t know what the solution is but the thought of that kind of violence is unacceptable. And we don’t want to be calling the police every time something goes wrong. Indigenous women are super criminalized and many of them don’t trust the police and I get that. So I’d just like to see a more proactive plan about how we deal with this problem.”
The overwhelming majority of gendered violence occurs in a domestic setting. Women being assaulted by strangers, though a terrifying prospect, isn’t how this sort of violence typically plays out.
That said, Julie’s concerns aren’t unfounded. Sexual assault against Indigenous women is alarmingly common in west downtown. In most of those cases, the assault comes from someone the victim knows.
But that too can be problematic given the broken trust between police and Inuit women. An internal review of Montreal police statistics found that Inuit women are 11 times more likely to be stopped by police than white women. I’ve met Inuit women who have racked up thousands in petty bylaw infractions — things as mundane as yelling, swearing or sleeping in a metro station — and have little, if any, trust in the police.
That might explain why so few sexual assault survivors in west downtown report their assailant.
“There was a situation a few years back where a woman called 911, told them she’d been raped and it took over an hour for the police to get there,” said Nakuset, who runs the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. “And the police acted pretty cavalier about the whole thing. Eventually, people stop reporting these assaults and the predators know that. So it becomes even easier for them to go unpunished.”
The situation is even more desperate for sex workers. Because their work is criminalized and since it can attract predatory men, it becomes even harder for working women to call out their abusers. One man, who went by the moniker OD, was notoriously abusive to Indigenous women around Cabot Square.
One of the women he allegedly roughed up, Siasi Tullaugak, was found strangled to death in a laneway off Chomedey Street in 2017. Though there was a trove of evidence that Siasi was murdered, her death was treated as a suicide for weeks. By the time detectives began investigating it as a potential homicide, most of the relevant witnesses skipped town.
OD was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a minor the following year.
“These people, these predatory men, are not our friends,” Chapman said. “When you have a shelter like ours — where everyone knows everyone — you can’t commit such an atrocious crime and keep coming to the shelter. There’s a system of accountability in place. When the shelter closed a few years ago, the streets got a lot more dangerous.”
To this end, the Resilience is working with Montreal police to improve the way sexual assaults are investigated in the community. The shelter’s new location will house a room where assault survivors can give a statement to detectives on camera instead of travelling across the city to the police department’s sexual assault unit at the eastern edge of the metro system.
“I think that’s a great measure, but I also think there needs to be more proactive steps,” Julie said. “These women deserve better and the women in this neighbourhood deserve better.”
There’s another potential snag in the plan to move Resilience into Saint-Henri.
In public, the city of Montreal has been an advocate for Resilience and the people who need it. But behind the scenes, there’s a growing concern about backlash from Saint-Henri residents.
Sources at city hall say there have been a series of frantic calls from the Sud-Ouest borough — where the new shelter will be located — to the federal agencies helping fund the project. Earlier this month, a senior staffer for borough mayor, Benoit Dorais, reached out to the Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations and the Minister of Indigenous Services, asking them take a more active role in Resilience’s move.
Even so, the Sud-Ouest is “committed to a successful arrival of the organization in the borough, as much for the clients of Resilience Montreal as the residents of the neighbourhood.” That’s what Dorais’ chief of staff Julie Bélanger wrote in a statement to The Rover, adding that the borough will always be available to meet with any of the organization’s partners.
Some residents, like Julie, have practical concerns.
“Where the shelter is now, it’s all high rises and offices but Saint-Henri is mostly duplexes and triplexes, it’s not the same dynamic at all,” she said. “I don’t know if a shelter in such a heavily residential area is the best fit. It’s coming here and I want to see it succeed here, but a lot of these questions need answering.”
Chapman says he’s put forth a few suggestions to help create better co-habitation between homeless people and those living in the duplexes along Atwater Ave. He’s suggested paying unhoused folks to clean the sidewalks and do landscaping around Resilience’s new site.
“I think people will realize that most of the people living on the streets, they take ownership of their territory, they care about keeping it clean,” Chapman said. “Of course people are in distress, you’re going to see human suffering and maybe even the occasional fight. But most people here just want to get by. Most people here want to belong to something, they want to feel like passersby can look them in the eye and say hello.”
For some, the mere thought of a homeless shelter in Saint-Henri is unacceptable. Two business owners near Atwater Ave. say they might launch a petition against the shelter, which they see as a poor fit for the neighbourhood.
Last spring, the borough issued Resilience a permit to renovate their new headquarters — a tin-roofed heritage building that once housed Rowntree Antiques. But Resilience still needs a municipal permit to operate as a day shelter, and there’s no guarantee that’ll be easy.
During a tour of the building last week, Chapman said he’ll be a pack of nerves until the new shelter opens its doors. Even so, he struggled to contain his glee while describing what each corner of the vacant space would become.
“We’re gonna have a cedar bathtub right here, can you imagine that? It’ll be like a ski lodge or something,” he said. “One of our clients, Albert Lord, he’s been dreaming about that for years. Can you imagine old Albert soaking it up in here? We tend to think of a homeless shelter as this place that needs to look bleak and hopeless. But we’re really trying to make this feel like home.”
Some of the practical concerns should be addressed through the day shelter’s architecture. The line up for food, clothes and other essentials, for instance, will be entirely inside the building so crowds won’t spill out onto the sidewalk. And instead of congregating on Atwater Ave., clients of Resilience Montreal will gather on the building’s second-floor terrace — which will be insulated and soundproofed so as not to bother neighbours.
To that end, the shelter is working with internationally-renowned architect Claire Davenport to make the space inviting and functional. Sketches of Resilience’s new day centre look far more like a spa than somewhere you go to get off the street.
“The concept, early on, was that we have to think of it like a wellness centre,” said Nakuset, who was instrumental in bringing Resilience to west downtown three years ago. “It’s a place for healing, a place that has a sense of space, a place you can be proud of.”
For Chapman, the prospect of a bigger more well-resourced shelter is a sign of hope, which isn’t always easy to come by on the streets. He reminded me of the day we met in 2016.
“That morning, I was breaking up a fight between two people as we all tumbled onto the front sidewalk,” Chapman said. “Albert Lord was one of them. He is now stabilized, in an apartment in Côte-St-Luc. We see him rarely. The other guy was Guitarman. He had been homeless for over 20 years. He reunited with his daughter in Toronto three years ago. She had been taken from him as a young man. He exited homelessness as well.
“Carol used to come by the old shelter years ago and swing at my head on a regular basis. Trauma survivors can be pretty intense. But the truth is, she has finally found some stability in her life and it was a long road that led her there.
“Real solutions always involve healthy human relationships. Those take time and there is always an element of hope and risk.”
Nico’s friends are still trying to understand the circumstances of his death.
A coroner’s report would help clear things up, but that could take months. And then there’s the problem of figuring out Nico’s last name. After checking with a dozen sources — including some of Nico’s closest friends — no one could say what it was for sure.
“I think it was Bono, spelled like the singer,” Nancy said, while cleaning the space outside her tent with a rake. Of course, Bono might actually be ‘Bonneau’ or a diminutive of ‘Bonneville’ — both fairly common names in Quebec.
There were other hints. Nico once told me he served with the Royal 22nd Regiment in Afghanistan but that he hated talking about the war. One of his friends, Shane, said Nico was military police but couldn’t say for certain where he served. A search on the regiment’s list of retirees came up empty but military records are often kept confidential or only released through access-to-information requests.
A Google search for ‘Nicolas Bono’ basically turns up empty and it turns out ‘Nicolas Bonneau’ was a French politician who died last year, which muddied the waters. None of his buddies seem to have him listed on their Facebook friends, which is strange since the city’s unhoused population uses the social media site to keep in touch with family.
After giving the Quebec coroner’s office every scrap of information I could find, they came back with a death notice for one Nicolas Bonneau. He was 43 years old.
“What else can you tell me?” I asked the coroner’s media relations officer.
“Nothing. His death is still under investigation.”
Shane tells me Nico’s family claimed his body but a Google search for his obituary comes up empty. If there was a funeral, none of Nico’s street family heard about it.
“The sad truth is, we have a backlog of like eight street funerals,” Chapman said. “We’ll commemorate them but with everything going on, it’s been hard.”
Another mystery surrounding Bonneau’s death is what happened to his dog Tommy. Police took him away after the paramedics carted Bonneau off to the morgue.
“They said he’ll be put in a shelter and adopted by a nice family,” Nancy said. “I dunno if I believe that. I still don’t believe he died of an overdose. He never took downers.”
Just then, Nancy picked up a pouch containing the life-saving drug Naloxone. If Nico really did die of a fentanyl overdose like people say, Naloxone could have saved his life. But he lived alone, with Tommy, and in today’s drug market — where everything from heroin to cocaine is spiked with fentanyl — using alone can be fatal.
For now, all Nancy has left of her old friend is a sequence of fading memories. No photos, no Facebook profile to leave condolences and no grave to visit.
Nico was a man whose circumstances led him to a life in the margins. But he was someone’s son once, just a baby crying out in the night to be cradled and nursed. And, until the very end, he was someone who could make people smile.
“He really was my brother,” Nancy said. “And out here that means something.”
Thank you Tito for your reporting.
Thanks for this piece, as always your coverage of unhoused issues is uniquely sensitive. It's great to have an update on the Resilience project.