Behind all the glitz and glamour that the Montreal Outgames has to offer at Viger Square is a dark side to the games. Two marginalized groups — homeless people and street workers — are being pushed out of the mini-village by city officials bent on a “clean-up” for tourists.
Before organizers began setting up tents and stages for the Outgames, Viger Square was a refuge for some of Montreal’s homeless people, away from the prying eyes of tourists and police harassment.
But in recent years, as the summer season of festivals approached, city hall spearheads a “social clean-up”of the square, says Bernard St-Jacques, spokesperson for the Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM), an organization that offers help for homeless people.
He puts the blame on the “community policing” model launched in 1997, saying it has led police to crack down on whatever they deem “disorder” problems.
Homeless people are given tickets as part of the clean-up — even for sitting or lying on park benches. Unable to pay cumulative tickets, they are sent to jail. Even after they are jailed, they are still expected to pay their tickets.
Ticketing homeless Montreal people is common, especially in the downtown core. A 2005 study published by Céline Bellot, a criminologist and a professor of social work at Université de Montréal, notes that between 1994 and 2004, 4,036 homeless people had received at least 22,684 tickets — a total bill of $8-million.
Bellot says people get one day in jail for each $25 of unpaid fines.
Montreal is home to Stella, the largest sex-worker centre in the country. Many of its members are queer. A worker from Stella recently visited Maison Tanguay, a provincial detention centre for women. She found 184 prisoners, more than the prison can handle. Some prisoners had to sleep at the cafeteria, says Anna-Louise Crago, communications coordinator at Stella.
In the lead-up to the Outgames, there was a huge crackdown on male hustlers, says Crago.
Crago also notes one woman was arrested for prostitution three times within a three-month period — during Montreal’s festival season.
The Viger Square is an open-air concrete block south of Rue St-Catherine, a 20-minute walk from the gay Village and near a homeless shelter located at the outskirt of the old port.
Last month, a local homeless organization protested against the Outgames because they knew they would have to live somewhere else. They were ticketed.
In a letter sent to Louise Roy, CEO of the Outgames, and published in La Press, Claire Thiboutot, general executive of Stella, explains the impact that the Outgames has on prostitutes and homeless people being forced from Viger Square.
Thiboutot fears even more tickets will be issued to prostitutes as they are forced to work outside their usual strolls. And he worries about their being pushed further away from services and resources like HIV prevention offices.
Roy wrote back to Stella, pledging to request police tone down their campaign.
But Crago says that police haven’t responded. While security is important for all festivals, Crago says there is no change from police oppression towards homeless people and street workers. And it’s ironic that their human rights are being abused during a celebration of another group that also demands its human rights be respected.