Towards the end of the fall, more than a hundred people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless will find permanent refuge in a new building in downtown Montreal. La Presse visited the construction site of the largest real estate project dedicated to the fight against homelessness in Quebec.

Located near the University of Quebec in Montreal, in a small street hidden between Rue Sainte-Catherine and Boulevard René-Lévesque, Le Christin stands out against the gray of the surrounding buildings. Adorned with warm-colored bricks, the building brings cheerfulness to this sector under construction, like what it intends to project into the lives of those who will soon occupy it.

Inside, the floors, still covered with paper, reveal their colorful hue. The color is the signature of Atelier Big City, the architectural firm commissioned by the Société d’habitation et de développement de Montréal (SHDM) to design the building. By deciding to embark on real estate projects for homeless people, this paramunicipal company, which receives no funding from the City of Montreal, has bet on architectural quality.

“Architecture is important to everyone,” adds Anne Cormier, lead architect on the project. She is also a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Montreal, and her research and teaching work mainly focuses on urban and social housing in city centers. For a clientele who, in some cases, passed through the street, then rooming houses, she wanted to design bright and pleasant spaces, despite the space constraints.

A choice that will have a real impact on residents, believes the general director of Accueil Bonneau, a partner in the project. “If you want to get out of homelessness, achieve residential stability, social reaffiliation, it takes places that are interesting,” says Fiona Crossling.

In the eyes of architect Anne Cormier, the urban presence of the building is also important. “There’s no reason for buildings to be ugly. It does no one a favor. Architecture has a public presence in the city all the time and stays for a long time. »

This project was erected on the ruins of Riga, a building owned by the SHDM, which included affordable housing. Signed in 1914 by the architect Joseph-Arthur Godin, the Riga was one of the rare Art Nouveau buildings in Montreal and had been designated by the Ville-Marie borough as having “exceptional value”. Faced with its deterioration, the SHDM began its renovation until a structural failure was detected, putting an end to the repair work. The structure lacked columns and frames and should have been completely redone to comply with current standards, argues the SHDM.

At the time of the demolition of the four-story building in 2019, the SHDM indicated that it would do what was necessary to leave a trace of the heritage. However, the evocation of the old building is discreet. “Different scenarios were studied,” said Julien Serra, spokesperson for the SHDM. In light of studies and budgets, it was decided to prioritize the realization of the project and the needs of future tenants. The reference to Riga lies in the architectural concept itself, i.e. the singularity of the building in its immediate environment. » He specifies that the SHDM is considering the integration of a mention of the original building using a QR code or an inscription visible from the outside.

A concern for densification and optimization of space has made it possible to increase the number of dwellings. From 65 in the Riga, it increased to 114 in the new building, mainly due to the addition of three floors. The interior is divided into two sections. On one side, small studios with an area of ​​21.6 m⁠2 (approximately 230 ft⁠2) with kitchenette and bathroom, intended for single men. On the other, slightly larger units from 25.8 m⁠2 (approximately 280 ft⁠2) to 37 m⁠2 (approximately 400 ft⁠2), with one or two bedrooms, which can be shared by two people, men or women, couples or roommates.

“We see that there are more and more different profiles knocking on our doors,” observes Anna Torres, clinical coordinator of accommodation services at Accueil Bonneau. We wanted a project focused on social diversity. The profiles of the people who will be chosen by the organization to live there will be varied. Men, women, refugees and asylum seekers, seniors and young adults from the DPJ, Indigenous people or from the LGBTQ community will be able to mingle.

The building, which will double the housing offered by Accueil Bonneau, will welcome people ready to live with greater autonomy, but who still need psychosocial support. Receptionists from Accueil Bonneau will be on hand. According to the Executive Director, the project will relieve congestion in other buildings managed by Accueil Bonneau and other organizations.

With construction having been delayed for several months by the pandemic, the first tenants, who will pay rent equivalent to 25% of their income through the Rent Supplement Program, are now expected to move in during the fall. Although the SHDM has a mandate to make rental housing available at affordable prices, private or community, it has never yet carried out a social housing project for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. “We hope that this will serve as an example to show that such projects can be done,” says Nancy Shoiry. This is essential, but it requires a lot of effort. We are still working hard today to secure funding. » Nearly $23.5 million was invested in the project. The SHDM, which is financially autonomous, will also assume the operating deficit, estimated at $280,000 per year.

In its 2014-2017 Montreal Homelessness Action Plan, the City of Montreal identified the SHDM as a partner in the creation of 1,000 housing units for vulnerable or homeless people. A target of 200 new housing units for the SHDM was subsequently specified. This objective will almost be achieved since in addition to the 114 housing units in Le Christin, the company will inaugurate in the coming months two other projects of 54 and 25 units, which will be managed by two other organizations, La Maison du Père and Chez Doris.