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Groups demand homeless shelter and social housing in West Island

04/01/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT
West Island community groups are calling on elected officials to provide more resources for those who struggle with homelessness on a regular basis.

Outreach workers at Action Jeunesse de l'Ouest-de-l'Île (AJOI) say they encounter more than a hundred new cases of hidden homelessness, also referred to as couch-surfing, every year.

"The most problems that we hear are kids getting kicked out of their house," said AJOI Clinic Coordinator Mardoché Mertilus. "They have nowhere to go, or they're in crisis, drug consuming, they have problems with school."

Mertilus has been helping people through AJOI for five years, and says he often finds himself with the only option of referring people to resources, including shelters, in downtown Montreal.

He says, however, AJOI often isn't able to provide transportation, and those in crisis don't have the means to get there themselves. Mardoche says many, including youth, are also reluctant to leave their community, even when they don't have a stable home in it.

"[The youth] doesn't want to follow you and you lose that little trust link that you have with the kid," said Mertilus.

Local solution needed

Mertilus and AJOI have been calling for the same solution for years. The West Island needs its own emergency shelter, says the outreach organization.

"Even if it's a big investment, I really think we need a shelter, and I know I can fill that shelter," said AJOI Co-Founder and Director Benoit Langevin.

This demand, along with a demand for more social housing in the West Island, has been echoed by many in the community, including Table de Quartier Sud de l'Ouest-de-l'Ile  (TQSOI). The community council's recent portrait of the region calls on elected officials in all three levels of government to recognize poverty as a problem in the West Island.

"There is no specific policy to promote the development of social and affordable housing in our territory," said TQSOI spokeswoman Alena Ziuleva. "I believe that one of the major obstacles is the perception that there is no such need."

According to some municipal and federal leaders in the West Island, there is will to create such resources, but funding must come from the province.

Lucie Charlebois, minister for rehabilitation, youth protection and public health says the government recently added $4.6 million to an $8.1 million budget for organizations that fight homelessness. She says the province has also increased funding for social housing.

But while Charlebois says she is aware of the couch-surfing problem in general, she admits the province needs more information on just how many people are in such situations, and where, before it can properly address the problem.

"People who are [couch-surfing], we invite them to tell us about their situation, because we haven't been able to have a clear portrait with regards to numbers," said Charlebois.

Charlebois says it's true there is less funding for shelters in places like the West Island, but the area's homeless need to be cared for nonetheless.

Better prepared

While some try to solve cases of hidden homelessness, others are trying not to create new ones.

At Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, there has long been a concern that when teenagers age out of their system at 18, they aren't prepared to be autonomous.

"The kids that are in Batshaw are in some ways more vulnerable than kids who have been brought up in their homes, and yet we expect more of them," said Batshaw Youth and Family Centres Program Manager Marie-Josée Roy. "We expect them to be ready to be fully autonomous at 18."

Roy says by law they can no longer house youth once they age out, but she says in 2002 Batshaw created a program to teach youth ages 16 to 19 basic life skills like finding a home, finding employment, budgeting, and cooking.

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