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Women’s shelter pushed to the brink as Cabot Square crisis lingers

A man recently approached a group of homeless people near Cabot Square and offered to pay them if they picked up used syringes behind his building.

The scene, witnessed by Marina Boulos-Winton, speaks to how bad things have become around the Atwater Ave. park since a nearby shelter was forced to move downtown last year.

“This wasn’t a public health official; it was a private citizen offering homeless people money to get rid of needles strewn across the ground,” said Boulos-Winton, who runs the Chez Doris women’s day centre.

“The needles are dangerous for the people handling them; they end up in a garbage can and that’s dangerous for the city workers who empty those garbage cans.”

Since the Open Door shelter moved out of the neighbourhood, street workers in the area speak of a void in services that’s creating a public health crisis.

The Open Door served hundr of meals a day and provided a space for people to sleep, do their laundry, see a nurse or get into a detox program.

With fewer resources on the ground, shelters like Chez Doris are being pushed to the brink.

“We’re not necessarily seeing more clients but they’re coming more often,” Boulos-Winton said. “They’re living from hand to mouth, they’re in bad shape. … We’re hearing about people using intravenous drugs in the Alexis Nihon (mall); we’re hearing about needles being left on the ground. It’s not safe.”

About 25 women a day need clean underwear, demand for food has increased dramatically over the summer and there’s been a 50-per-cent uptick in the use of Chez Doris’ showers, she said.

In the short term, Chez Doris could use donations: Women’s underwear, leggings, coats, boots and deodorant are a few of the items that could help, Boulos-Winton said.

The depth of the Cabot Square crisis came to light last spring, when street workers told the Montreal Gazette that a dozen homeless people who frequented the park died in a six month span. The Montreal Gazette was able to confirm four of those deaths with the Quebec coroner’s office. All of the victims were Indigenous.

Two homeless people who spoke to the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday said the absence of a shelter in the area has made their lives more dangerous. Security at the Atwater métro reported a surge in complaints last spring associated with fights and drinking in the station while police said they had to beef up their presence in the park.

Mayor Valérie Plante met with Quebec’s minister of Health and Social Services in June to ask for emergency funding to deal with the problem. Three intervention workers were hired last month to patrol the park and try to connect homeless people to services in the area.

On Monday, Plante went to the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal to work on a long term solution to the Cabot Square situation. Sources say the city will soon announce funding for a new shelter on Atwater Ave. that would be run by workers from the Native Women’s Shelter, Benedict Labre House and Nazareth House.

“We’re hopeful, I like the mayor’s approach and I think we’ll get this done,” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter. “We need action. Too many Indigenous people, and women in particular, are vulnerable near Cabot Square.

“They’re resilient people; they’re brave people; they’ve made it through things you could never imagine.

“We need a permanent solution, one that gives them a fighting chance. There’s a cost to that, but what’s the cost of doing nothing?”

ccurtis@postmedia.com

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