A short man wrapped up in a mucky cream jacket, eyes covered by the brim of a baseball cap steps out from the shadows of the darkened park. He creeps up to bypassers as they exit the foul metro station. At the corner across the street, a plump middle-aged woman smiles lasciviously at young men as they pass.
“Hey, honey,” she says, allowing a glimpse at her ghastly dentition.
Most pedestrians quicken their pace. Few of them seem surprised.
For the last 20 years, the downtown neighbourhood of Ville-Marie west, most commonly known as the Atwater area, has descended into vagrancy, drug dealing, alcoholism and prostitution.
Cabot Square has a prime location – right next to the Children’s Hospital, mere steps away from a strip of Chinese and Pho restaurants and independent clothing boutiques, all bookended by a few blocks by Concordia University to the east and the famously wealthy Westmount to the west. However, surrounded by this vibrant commerce, the square remains a grim, unmanicured plot of land.
Since last summer’s student protests which pulled officers from Police Station 12, originally supervising the area of Ville-Marie West and Westmount, to the front lines of the demonstrations, crime in that neighbourhood increased to an all-time high.
On September 17, 2012, Operation Square was launched. Led by Station 12 commander, Stéphane Plourde, this initiative had double-mandate of “reducing acts of criminal offences and incivilities,” and “directing people in need to the adequate help and medical services,” according to the SPVM press release.
Despite the SPVM’s best intentions, members of Cabot Square have been skeptical of their attempts at interventions – perhaps for good reason. “I have seen many of these,” deplores an unimpressed Joey Saganash, intervention team leader for the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal. “They barge into the park with their big cars, arrest a few people, fine others and everything goes back to how it previously was once they leave.”
Saganash has been working for the centre for six years. The 33 year old half-Cree, half-Quebecer patrols in his van four times a week and maintains an ongoing relationship with people who live on the street. He provides them with food, moral support and directs those who need assistance to the appropriate services.
According to him, approximately 200 individuals drift in and out of the square annually. Half of them are “regulars” who have been around for many years. The other half are people in transition, mostly Inuits who come for medical treatment at the Montreal’s Children Hospital on the corner of René-Lévesque boulevard and Atwater avenue. Those, he explains, do not consider themselves homeless; it’s their nomadic way of life. They often come from reservations in northern Quebec and nestle themselves in the square because of its proximity to the hospital and access to the YMCA and Module du Nord Québécois.
Homelessness is a self-perpetuating tradition in the square – as its seedy reputation grows, so does its homeless population. Although most of these individuals found living in the square are not considered dangerous by the SPVM, their gatherings often involve public drinking, drug dealing, prostitution, vagrancy, fights and other types of public mischiefs later into the night.
Saganash has come to know almost every homeless person in downtown Montreal and admits Cabot square is the area that takes up most of his work. He often plays the role of moderator between homeless people and the police. After years of experience, he uses increasingly unfavourable words to describe SPVM methods regarding those who dwell in the park; methods that he associates mainly with gratuitous brutality and harassment.
“A lot of my clients told me that they have been beaten up [by the police],” he says. “From personal experience, I have no trouble believing them and some of them came to me with bruises and scratches all over their bodies after [police] interventions.”
Announcements of initiatives similar to Operation Square often cause distress among the volunteers working in the neighbourhood, who often view SPVM actions as ways of masking the problem rather than fixing it.
“They came at him, the four of them, preparing for an aggressive intervention. The guy had mental health problems. What do you think he is going to do feeling threatened when he has a knife in his hand? He panicked.”
Saganash admits, however, to seeing a drastic change in police behaviour in the last years. According to him, the situation used to be considerably worse: explicit racism, interventions involving extreme force, abusive arrests and harassment were routine in the park when he started working for the center. With the accumulation of complaints against police brutality, including Saganash’s, the SPVM’s tactics have changed. With the newly instated Marc Parent as Montreal’s police chief in 2010 notably, higher ranks of the SPVM started giving new directions regarding police behaviour on the field and encouraged an approach based more on mediation when it comes to interventions.
This new self-awareness extended to Police Station 12. Most officers working in the office perched up Stanton street in Westmount are only too aware of the reputation the Montreal police drags among homeless people. The station commander believes such image, however, has become part of a popular “folklore” and does not translate the reality of the SPVM anymore.
“We’re not garbage collectors, we’re not here to do clean-up operations,” Plourde says. “There is still a repression component that is part of our job but the preventive and assistance part is more important.”
Even with these efforts, however, the SPVM still has a long way to go when it comes to field methods and strategies. Both the downtown YMCA and the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal stated without hesitation that Operation Square produced little, even undesired, results.
“Sure, it had an effect. It had the effect of moving [offenders] from one place to another around the square or in the metro,” Saganash said sarcastically. “Things won’t change until [police officers] learn to get to know these people and, especially, learn how to talk to them.”
He brought up the example of Mario Hamel. Two years ago, a police officer shot and killed Hamel, a homeless man well-known by the police department for his history of mental illness. The shooting occurred after he waved a knife at the officers called on the scene in the downtown area of the city.
Saganash, who was acquainted to the victim, knew at that time that the police force was not adequately trained to deal with those types of situations.
“They came at him, the four of them, preparing for an aggressive intervention,” he said. “The guy had mental health problems. What do you think he is going to do feeling threatened when he has a knife in his hand? He panicked.”
Hamel is just one case among many homeless people who come to Montreal to get diagnosed for their mental illness in nearby hospitals and who are too often left to themselves afterward.
Quickly after the incident, the SPVM has relied heavily on the work of the Équipe mobile de référence et d’intervention en itinérance, a taskforce created in 2009 comprised of six officers who work with social workers from the Centre de santé et de services sociaux. They focus on keeping track of the homeless people most known to the SPVM and on helping them find the appropriate care.
It is only recently that the SPVM decided to make of trained response to mental illness an active component of their intervention strategies. In June 2012, after the killing by a police officer of Farshad Mohammadi, another homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia, the SPVM announced the creation of yet another squad specialized in mental illness.
“The ÉSUP [Équipe de support en urgences psychosociales] consists of one police officer and one health worker who go out every night of the year to answer to calls when police officers are dealing with people suffering from mental issues,” explains Plourde, who says the SPVM answers to 33,000 calls related to the mentally ill each year.
On January 31, Parent held a press conference revealing a project that will see the training of approximately 50 police officers by social workers and psychiatrists to improve their interactions with people suffering from mental illness.
Despite all these efforts, Saganash, the man on the field, remains skeptical. Past SPVM methods have earned them a reputation that proves difficult to shake off. He believes that working directly with police officers on the field would discredit him in the eyes of the homeless population and eventually drive them off.
Police Station 12 community officer Adalbert Pimentel, along with his counterparts in other police stations, are actively trying to prove people like Saganash wrong and attempt to demystify what they define as clichés about both the SPVM and homeless people.
“There are many assumptions about our work and about the population on Cabot square. There are as many women committing infractions as men and the people who sell drugs or commit the violence are usually not homeless people.”
“There are many assumptions about our work and about the population on Cabot square,” Pimentel said. “We don’t profile people and criminality is not attributed to one specific population. There are as many women committing infractions as men and the people who sell drugs or commit the violence are usually not homeless people.”
Moreover, the absence of adequate response to homelessness in the park is not the SPVM’s responsibility alone. Jonathan Lebire, a social worker and project leader at the downtown YMCA, speaks of a lack of dialogue between the main community organizations who have been combatting these issues for years in Cabot Square.
“Sometimes we would be three social workers intervening with one person and wouldn’t know there were even more workers from other organizations working with that same person with completely different approaches,” Lebire said.
The Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network is now spearheading a project aiming to call to arms the various groups working in the square and harmonize their interventions and strategies in the park. The SPVM is an active participant of the project; what Lebire calls the “short-term” actions of the SPVM are an essential component of the newborn project’s long-term strategies.
Why did this project take so long to be put in place? Lebire says it was a long time coming but along with the recent media attention around aboriginal issues, Le Seville condo project on the corner of Ste Catherine Street and Chomedey Street will likely attract a new breed of residents to the area. Those will need some convincing if the city wants them to stay in expensive condos located in front of a park that, in the current state, is inhospitable.
Operation Square ended on November 14, 2012 and the five officers who were exclusively assigned to the operation recorded a total of 472 interventions throughout the two months. Of them, 342 were preventive interventions — verbal warnings and handing out informative leaflets — and 130 restraining interventions, 59 ending up in arrests.
Although only less than a third of the interventions resulted in repressive methods, Pimentel is not satisfied with the numbers, saying statistics can be misleading. Too many victims and witnesses, especially when they are homeless, do not report crimes to the police, out of fear of a legal battle or simple distrust of the police.
To raise awareness among the Aboriginal population, Police Station 12 released a short public service video that shows Pimentel casually walking through the park with Judy Hayohok, crisis worker with the women’s rights group, Chez Doris. They explain the potential dangers homeless people can face in the city and encourage them to report any crime they witness or are victim of. The SPVM translated the video in Inuktitut, one of the main Inuit dialects, and distributed copies to various associations that assist the Native population around the square.
In the end, Plourde and Pimentel are both optimistic about the neighbourhood’s future. The mediation approach employed during Operation Square incited half a dozen intervention groups in the area to collaborate with the SPVM on preventive techniques.
In addition, the city of Montreal’s plan to entirely revamp the square in the summer of 2014 has left Plourde hopeful that this will encourage new and old residents to “retake possession of their neighbourhood.”
“We have to keep hope and we will keep working together to make sure that living in this neighbourhood becomes as pleasant as possible,” Plourde says.