Today’s news is that the Montreal police (SPVM) will discipline an unnamed constable for threatening to lock a homeless man (seen on a remarkably frigid day last week in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt outside the Jean-Talon Métro station) to a pole unless he stopped being a nuisance. Apparently police were called because the man had been ‘acting aggressively’ inside and around the Métro station. The video of the altercation, and the constable’s poorly-considered comments, is posted above.
Many were quick to condemn the constable for his apparent lack of humanity, and indeed it’s pretty inhumane to lock an inappropriately-dressed homeless man with aggression issues (and possible mental problems) to a pole outside on a day when even the most acclimatized Montréalais would think better than to venture outside.
The question is, was the constable serious?
I should think not. I don’t honestly believe the constable had any actual intention of locking the poor man to a pole. I would like to say I can’t imagine Montreal police would ever do such a thing, but unfortunately the force has consistently demonstrated a bad habit of abusing the fundamental right of the citizenry to be free of unwarranted police aggression. The conduct of the SPVM at annual May Day demonstrations, during the Printemps Érable or its predilection to shoot first and ask questions later are all justification enough to be critical of the SPVM.
Though again, I don’t actually believe this particular constable actually intended to lock this man to a pole on a freezing cold winter day.
I don’t think any individual police officer in this city would actually think they could get away with such brutality, especially anywhere near a major Métro station. That the constable’s offending remarks were captured on video is proof enough – imagine the shit storm if the video had been of the police locking the man to a pole and then driving off?
That’s full-blown inquiry territory. It would imply the constable didn’t fear any negative repercussions from his superior officers and this in turn would suggest such appalling actions are ‘normal operating procedures’ for the SPVM. But such is not the case. The offending constable will be reprimanded, though not dismissed. My guess is he’ll be riding a desk for a little while.
Again, if he had in any way been serious I have a feeling the bull’s upper brass would very quickly have gotten rid of him, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.
SPVM spokesman Commander Ian Lafrenière indicated disciplinary actions could range from a verbal warning to a suspension, but didn’t indicate what would happen. He did elaborate, however, that the constable did try to help the homeless man and that his comments were completely unacceptable.
The exchange highlights a crucial problem in Montreal and other major cities; police are more often than not the primary point-of-contact with our homeless population, not social workers or specialized therapists.
And as we all know, police aren’t social workers, nor are they psychologists or nurses. Yet we expect them to play these roles despite the fact that far too few have even had a cursory training in these domains. Is it any wonder they sometimes fail spectacularly? And do we really want the police to be responsible for our city’s homeless population in the first place?
Montreal’s Homeless Problem
The first question we need to ask ourselves is: how many people in this city of 1.65 million people are actually homeless?
Unfortunately, what statistical information we have is both limited and old – 15 years old to be precise.
The last major study of homelessness in Québec was conducted in 1998-1999 and revealed that there was somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people ‘who had used services intended for the homeless’ at one point during the year here in Montreal. Of those, more than 8,000 had no fixed address during the time of the study.
It’s hard to say whether these figures are still relevant, for example, we’ve had something of a major economic crisis these last few years, and I would imagine this may have put more people into precarious living situations.
But if we’re to assume that these numbers are in fact accurate, and that we have a somewhat stable homeless population of between 6,000 and 10,000 people, then I think we have a legitimate homeless problem and need to start coming up with some solutions.
And appealing for more donations to food banks and homeless shelters isn’t going to cut it. At a certain point we’re going to have to bite the bullet and acknowledge that the homeless problem is indeed everyone’s responsibility, and that both the city and province need to collaborate of finding a long-term shelter solution for people who otherwise run the risk of freezing to death on a city street.
I saw just that about a decade ago – a homeless man who had died of severe hypothermia and exposure, lying half-naked on the sidewalk outside the McGill Métro entrance on President Kennedy and University. When I saw him the paramedics had just arrived and his clothes were strewn about, possibly as a consequence of paradoxical undressing.
Watching this video reminded me of a of some aspects of hypothermia that may help put what we’re seeing into context.
In the case of the threatened homeless man, or of the dead man I saw lying on the sidewalk, both were inappropriately dressed given the extreme cold. In the case of the former, he’s seen wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts on what may have been the coldest day of the year thus far. With regards to the latter, he appeared to have taken his clothing off.
As it happens, people suffering from hypothermia are known to take their clothing off in what’s called ‘paradoxical undressing’. They also tend to be highly confused, agitated, confrontational, aggressive and, in the final stages of hypothermia, will attempt something called ‘terminal burrowing‘ wherein the victim seeks out small partially enclosed spaces in which to lay down.
Suffice it to say, I have my suspicions that may have lead to the man’s apparent aggression and lack of clothing. He likely spent the night out in the cold and had been desperately trying to get warm inside the Métro entrance to no avail. The Métro isn’t heated – warmth is generated primarily by concentrated, captured body heat that keeps most station platforms relatively warm throughout the year, but most of that warmth would have dissipated at the upper level of the vestibule.
In sum, this guy, regardless of his existing mental state, was likely being driven crazy by the cold, and I would expect a nurse, paramedic or even a social-worker with experience working with the homeless would know this instinctively. By contrast, I expect cops to know the highway driving code and Miranda rights instinctively.
Is homelessness a right?
A fundamental philosophical human-rights question is whether or not any individual citizen has the ‘right’ to be homeless.
I don’t think so, but I would counter that the state, as agent of the common interest, has a responsibility to provide food, clothing and shelter to everyone who can’t (for whatever reason) provide it for themselves.
I suppose the Ayn Rand types would argue that any legislation of the sort would do nothing but help lazy people be lazy, and that it would ultimately lead the whole of society to simply give up trying and live off government hand-outs.
Being a reasonable person, I think such thinking is ludicrous.
Regardless, it’s an interesting question because this is Canada and most of us believe that we have some kind of an inalienable right to live off the land much in the same fashion as our colonial-era ancestors. If it isn’t a right already, I would expect most Canadians would support any measure which stipulated we all have the right to pitch a tent on unclaimed land and camp for as long as our supplies last. And as long as we’re all responsible and clean up after ourselves, no harm, no foul. It’s part of the Canadian aesthetic – we love the outdoors and our culture has been shaped in no small part by the lifestyles and experiences of frontier living and seasonal nomadism.
But this can’t possibly apply to cities and their homeless populations, and we can’t cavalierly insinuate that homeless people are homeless because they choose to be, as if they were simply camping in our parks, alleyways and public spaces.
The primary reason why we can’t look at homelessness as a choice is the fact that most homeless people in Montreal, as elsewhere, suffer from mental illness, not to mention poor diet, poor general health, drug addictions etc. (and, taking it a step further, are suffering from all this at the same time). As such, it’s inconceivable that anyone would think the average homeless person is in any way capable of making a conscious, rational choice to be homeless.
Ergo, I think it ultimately comes back to the state, not only to provide for the homeless, but to make sincere and long-term efforts at rehabilitation.
However, in order to guarantee the success of such a program, people can’t be permitted to sleep on the streets.
This last point will doubtless irk many progressives who would nearly instinctively imagine the police rounding up all the homeless in the middle of the night and putting them in some kind of a prison. This isn’t what I’m proposing of course – I think we need a large centralized shelter that can accommodate many thousands of people at the same time (and for prolonged periods of time), in which a wide variety of services are made available to help get people off the streets and back into the realm of productive society.
But of course, it would likely require police to force obstinate homeless people into such a facility, even if there were specially-trained social-workers whose job it was to incentivize and convince the homeless to take up the offer. Fundamentally, the movements of the homeless can’t be limited (up to and including the right to wander the streets all day), so perhaps a specific law that could be enacted would simply say no one has the right to sleep overnight in a public place.
No easy answers here, just more ethical and moral questions the people of a modern city need to ask themselves.