“It’s a matter of dignity”

By Jessica Murphy on November 27, 2008

When Quebec’s 38th legislature was dissolved on Nov. 5, the work by the national assembly’s standing committee on social affairs came to a halt.

It’s a shame, because their efforts were both necessary and bold.

From Sept. 29 to Nov. 4, MNAs from all three political parties stepped out of their comfort zones and traveled to Quebec City, Gatineau, Trois-Rivieres and Montreal to delve into the complex problem of homelessness in the province.

Their efforts brought some clarity to the question and uncovered some surprising facts.

“It was really one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had because it was a whole side of Montreal, and Quebec society that I’ve never seen,” said committee president Geoffrey Kelley, Liberal MNA for the suburban Montreal riding of Jacques-Cartier.

“I live out in the suburbs and it’s just a part of the world that I don’t know first hand.”

The committee not only listened to the testimony of 99 separate groups ranging from homeless shelters like Accueil Bonneau, health organizations like Agence de la santé et des services sociaux de Montréal, lobby groups like l’Association pour la défense des droits et l’inclusion des personnes qui consomment des drogues du Quebec, to the Quebec Bar Association and even the homeless themselves.

“We had about 15 to 20 people who were homeless or had been homeless testifying before the committee, which took a lot of courage. I was very impressed they would take time to come and tell their story,” Kelley said.

An impressive 142 documents - including handwritten ones from the homeless - were also deposited.

Committee members even spent a night on Ontario Street East with L’Anonyme, an organization that does front-line health work in the city’s rougher districts and who shocked the commission with statistics on the skyrocketing rates of Hepatitis C and HIV among drug users and street people.

“Many compelling arguments were made for a safe injection site,” noted Kelley.

“We didn’t draw a conclusion on that (but) it’s something that should continue to be explored.”

Through their work, a clearer picture began to emerge on how the province is failing its most vulnerable citizens.

“It was really quite the intensive month,” said Kelley, “and I was struck by how complex the problem is. You realize how many different facets their are.”

Factors that contribute to homelessness include poverty, mental health problems, and substance abuse.

A 1996 Santé Québec study found that some 12,000 people in Montreal had no fixed address at one time or another in the year and 12 years later, front-line workers are concerned about increasing violence on the streets and the growing numbers of women and children who are finding themselves without shelter.

“How, at the age of 13 or 14, have things gone so wrong in your life that you end up there?” asked Kelley.

The PQ’s Martin Lemay has represented the downtown riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques since 2006, and prior to that he served as mayor of Ville-Marie.

“It’s a daily reality in my riding,” he said. “We see (homelessness) increase year-to-year and there’s no concrete solution.”

Nonetheless, sitting on the commission served as a reality check.

“It was at once rich and destabilizing,” he said. “It confirmed that this was a profound problem.”

He was struck by the lack of leadership on the matter and by how severely the system perpetuated the problem.

“Sometimes, our own public services send people into the streets,” Lemay said. “Just having youth services and community organizations sign agreements to work together could make a difference. But the most surprising was that for the Quebec government, this problem didn’t exist. It was a wake-up call.”

Still, there are some quick fixes that could appease situation. These include:

-Easing the transition between prison and youth services and community organizations,

-Having government health and social service centres create special teams that do outreach work, and

-Ensuring consistent funding to key community organizations.

 “It’s not $300 million, “ said Lemay. “These things can be done quickly.”

Both men noted the municipal government also failed in this dossier.

“Montreal is 10 years behind,” Lemay said while Kelley noted there was a lot of finger pointing and some efforts to tackle the matter, but few concrete solutions being put forward.

While the future of the commission remains uncertain, both men find comfort that the work they’ve done can’t be erased, and are encouraged that the Liberals, the Parti Quebecois and the Action democratique du Quebec have made tackling homelessness a priority.

“There’s no one now who can deny it exists and that it’s a problem. No one,” Lemay said. “The Quebec government needs to take responsibility, it’s a matter of human dignity.”


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