Montreal needs help dealing with homeless, drugs and asylum seekers near Berri-UQAM, mayor says

Mayor Valérie Plante says there are too many vulnerable people on Place Émilie-Gamelin, here on February 22, 2023.  Asylum seekers are housed in a center on Place Dupuis on the eastern edge of the park.  (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - photo credit)

Mayor Valérie Plante says there are too many vulnerable people on Place Émilie-Gamelin, here on February 22, 2023. Asylum seekers are housed in a center on Place Dupuis on the eastern edge of the park. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada – photo credit)

Homelessness and drug addiction abound at Place Émilie-Gamelin, home of the city’s busiest metro station, Berri-UQAM — and the Mayor of Montreal is asking provincial and federal governments to help those in the area.

Valérie Plante said in an interview this week that the area has become a melting pot for “vulnerable” populations – people with mental health problems, the homeless and those with substance abuse problems. This is also where the Quebec government is hosting some asylum seekers who have recently entered the country from Roxham Road.

According to Plante, the mix of people in the area adds to the challenge of providing services and ensuring the neighborhood is safe, clean, and welcoming to local businesses.

“Asylum seekers are a vulnerable demographic that is very different from the homeless or people searching for mental health or drug use that we see in this space,” Plante said. “It’s very, very different, but they have special needs because they’re just arriving in this country, and so there’s a lot of pressure, social pressure, in a small area that already has a lot of challenges.”

Plante is calling on the provincial government to provide more assistance, including nurses and social workers, to the area and on the federal government to ensure that the asylum seekers are taken care of as quickly as possible and are “on track”.

Most of the asylum seekers in the area live in a center on Place Dupuis, on the east side of the park, which is run by Regional accumulation and integration programs for consumers, or PRAIDA, a program that welcomes new asylum seekers when they first arrive in Quebec.

Lucie Tremblay, CEO of the Mid-West Health Authority, which runs PRAIDA, said in an interview that the center on Place Dupuis can accommodate 760 asylum seekers, is almost always full and has been for several years. Asylum seekers stay at the PRAIDA facility for two to three weeks, she said, before moving elsewhere.

But PRAIDA customers, as Tremblay calls them, are usually busy during the day filling out forms, trying to establish themselves in a new country and not contributing to the region’s problems.

“We’re here to support them,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for a very long time and as far as we know we haven’t had many problems in that area.”

The federal government also rents out hotel rooms in the area to other asylum seekers, Tremblay said.

“Not a good area for small babies”

François Raymond, director general of the Société de Développement Social (SDS), which helps marginalized people in Montreal and the Émilie Gamelin neighborhood, said the presence of asylum seekers in the Place Émilie Gamelin neighborhood does not pose a problem in and of itself, but it contributes to one already challenging environment

“There are more vulnerable people, even if they’re not homeless, it still doesn’t help,” he said. “It’s not the best environment for a newcomer to witness. You can observe that there are many more vulnerable people there, and that there is more friction when there are more vulnerable people around, leading to more situations where people witness drug use.”

Raymond said he’s seen young asylum-seeking families, some with children, playing in the park, which worries him.

“Émilie-Gamelin, you know, even though it’s a park, there are syringes [on the ground]’ he said. ‘It’s not a good area for small babies of new arrivals to play in.’

The area has always been a center for drug trafficking, Raymond said, but things got worse during the pandemic when temporary shelters for the area’s homeless and businesses closed.

The influx of asylum seekers is also putting pressure on some systems that are not used to receiving them.

On any given day, Sam Watts, the CEO of the Welcome Hall mission, said his center could care for dozens of asylum seekers, most of whom have vastly different needs than the homeless clients the mission is used to.

“We don’t have as many spaces to serve people with homelessness and instead we serve a combination of people with homelessness and people seeking asylum,” he said.

According to Watts, this is partly due to the flood of asylum seekers, which has exceeded available resources and increased pressure on systems designed to care for the homeless.

The PRAIDA center on Place Dupuis will close in August and move to a new building in Ahuntsic-Cartierville.

A statement from the office of Quebec Minister of Social Affairs Lionel Carmant said the minister was “surprised” that Plante had issued a call for more resources and said the CAQ government already had US$54 million in 2022-23 Dollars invested in homelessness and more beds made available.

Through a spokesman, Sean Fraser, the federal immigration minister, said only that the Place Dupuis facility falls under the purview of the provincial government.


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