So much of our time and advocacy at this paper are spent on issues of poverty. Particularly at this time of year. So many stories highlighting initiatives on collection and distribution of everything from food to clothing to toys. All worthy, but all just to make the few weeks of this Christmas season a little less miserable and lonely for the vulnerable. But imagine if you could offer a solution — however inadequate and temporary — for the most needy among us that will last the whole winter. A bit of relief from this brutal season for the homeless.
We started to think and act on the following idea last week, but it has been foremost in our thoughts for years. But last week there was a story. As Edward R. Murrow would have called it, “one of the thousands of little stories that affect us most deeply.”
Stephane is a homeless man on the streets for some twenty years. His only companion in the past few years has been his dog. A doberman. During the fierce cold last Thursday night, his dog would not stop shivering. Stephane wrapped him in two blankets but it didn’t help. He sought shelter at the Berri Metro station. But it was 2 am and the policy of the STM is to refuse shelter after the Metro is closed. Two inspectors would not open the doors. Stephane left. His dog died in his arms that night.
Over the years we have aided and delivered direct help to the hungry and homeless. Many permanent solutions to poverty and need are actually easy to enact but are so often met with political indifference and bureaucratic resistance. It is often maddening. But sometimes there come moments of clarity and we can actually do something to relieve suffering. They may not be the best and most long-lasting remedies, but they must be done for decency demands that we not turn our backs on the misery that confronts us on any given street. As Jeremy Bentham once wrote, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
The shelters for the homeless do great work. The work of the angels. But as we have been told for many days, they are filled to capacity. They have asked municipal authorities for years to give them a few deserted buildings the city owns and heats as emergency capacity. The shelters are willing to provide the staff. Nothing has been forthcoming.
One of the saddest problems with the homeless is that some will always want to stay on the streets. And while professionals do their best to better the lives of these poor unfortunates, we the public cannot just stand by. Toronto has supported its shelter establishment with land and large heated tent emplacements. They are staffed by workers from permanent shelters. Just last week Toronto added 280 more beds in these winter tent shelters. Montreal has no such program.
While we need to continue to work with the frontline organizations for permanent expansion of infrastructure for the homeless, all of us can help. We can shame the pious excuses for inaction. So early last week we started looking into providing the homeless with shelter. Inexpensive pup tents. They are light, easy to fold and carry. They sell for under fifty dollars. We started a group that has bought some and is giving them out. We have also been in touch with the main shelters. We have heard their needs and will work in tandem to give them the advocacy to reach their goals of permanent shelter capacity expansion.
But these efforts are not mutually exclusive. We cannot sit idly by and watch people suffer laying under cardboard and cloth. We are also working to find empty lots which the homeless can use if the streets are too difficult. And we are reaching out to developers to contribute portable toilets for those lots. We must do this now. It is time for mercy. Remember, the difference between so many of us and those on the streets involves a good deal of luck. Rouse your compassion and resolve and let’s create some facts on the ground that will spread the spirit of this season of love through our long, hard winter.