Montreal's homelessness, addiction crises fuelling rise in safety complaints on the Metro

Social workers who intervene with people in the Montreal Metro who are intoxicated, experiencing homelessness or having a mental health episode say they are not surprised by a rise in security-related complaints to the city's public transit agency.

"There is a clear mental health crisis going on, especially the homeless population and even the population at large," said Jean-Luc, team leader for EMMIS, Montreal's mobile mediation and social intervention team..

Due to the sensitive nature of his work, CBC News has agreed to identify him only by his first name.

Following the pandemic, he said his team has noticed that everyone seems more "on edge."

"We see it every day, people fighting over the smallest things," said Jean-Luc.

"Sometimes our interventions are not even with the homeless."

"It could be a regular person just having a bad day and that happens to lead to a psychosocial crisis."

Jean-Luc is the team leader for EMMIS, the city's mobile team which is often called to intervene with vulnerable clientele in the Metro. He says it's clear after the pandemic that many people are on edge.
Jean-Luc is the team leader for EMMIS, the city's mobile team which is often called to intervene with vulnerable clientele in the Metro. He says it's clear after the pandemic that many people are on edge. (Etienne Gosselin/CBC)

In 2023, there were 1,877 security-related complaints from customers who use Montreal's buses or Metros. Most of those complaints came from Metro users.

In May 2024 alone, EMMIS responded to 200 calls in the Metro.

Many of their interventions are with people who are experiencing homelessness and sleeping in the station. Due to their past behaviour, they've often been barred from shelters and have nowhere else to go, said Jean-Luc.

Flagrant alcohol and drug use is also common.

"It's not that there's more consumption of drugs, it's just that it's more public," said Jean-Luc. "Like it could be right here on the corner of Berri-UQAM. Someone could be using a needle or smoking crack."

Philippe Gagnon, right, is one the six safety ambassadors that started this month. 'We’re more boots on the ground, basically, for all the help people might need,' he said.
Philippe Gagnon, right, is one the six safety ambassadors that started working for the STM earlier this year. 'We’re more boots on the ground, basically, for all the help people might need,' he said. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

The Société de transport de Montréal (STM)'s special constables, safety ambassadors and special intervention social workers carry the drug naloxone, which helps reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

In 2023, naloxone was administered 25 times, according to the STM. For the first half of 2024, it has already been used 24 times.

"There's a lack of resources in terms of detox and we don't do a good job of doing enough prevention," said Jean-Luc.

Post-pandemic safety complaints on the rise

Safety-related complaints were up 61 per cent last year compared to the year before the pandemic.

In 2020, there was a big spike in complaints during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But complaints dropped back down in 2021 before climbing again in 2022 and 2023.

Most of the concerns flagged by Metro users are related to homelessness, the attitude or behaviour of transit users and drug or alcohol use, according to data obtained from the STM.

"The social context in the Metro network has changed considerably in recent years," said STM spokesperson Amélie Régis in an email to CBC News.

The Metro stations with the most complaints last year were Berri-UQAM, Lionel-Groulx and Bonaventure.

The three bus lines which logged the largest number of gripes were Beaubien, St-Laurent and Jean-Talon E. The most common complaints from bus users revolved around client behaviour, customers being bothered or intimidated by young people, theft, assault and extortion.

And according to new data released by Montreal police last month, crimes against people — such as assaults, robberies and sexual assaults — in the Metro system doubled in 2023 compared to the previous year.

Unsafe working conditions

The union that represents STM maintenance workers said there's been an increase in aggressive behaviour from customers since the end of the pandemic.

Although the STM is trying different strategies to detect and report safety issues, there's a limit to what can be done, said Simon Larivière, vice-president of the Syndicat du Transport de Montréal.

Simon Larivière, vice-president of the Syndicat du Transport de Montréal, said maintenance staff are having more aggressive interactions with people in the Metro.
Simon Larivière, vice-president of the Syndicat du Transport de Montréal, said maintenance staff are having more aggressive interactions with people in the Metro. (Etienne Gosselin/CBC)

Where possible, employees have paired up — but he said it's not always practical. Most of the altercations STM staff have had with people in the Metro are verbal, but some have escalated and resulted in workers being injured, said Larivière.

"It's getting difficult for them to do their regular jobs," he said.

Safe ways to intervene

Julie Lalonde is a public educator who offers bystander intervention training. While it's difficult to predict how a stranger may react, Lalonde says there are ways to try and de-escalate a situation safely.

If a transit user sees someone in crisis or being volatile, they may not feel comfortable intervening directly. But they can speak to the bus driver, alert security or look for support from other passengers.

"Even if that just involves calling security, you've done it with someone else to show, hey, we're all seeing this. Let's just acknowledge that we're all seeing this, what can we do, rather than looking the other way," said Lalonde.

Between 2019 and 2023, safety-related complaints by Montreal bus and Metro users rose by 61 per cent.
Between 2019 and 2023, safety-related complaints by Montreal bus and Metro users rose by 61 per cent. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

If a transit user is being harassed, the goal should be to protect the person who's being harmed, said Lalonde. As a bystander, that could mean striking up a conversation as a distraction.

"'Hey, I'm trying to get off at this stop. Hey, do you know what time this train runs?' Asking them a really innocent question is a great way to help them focus on you and ignore the person that's harassing them," said Lalonde.

She said it's also important for the transit agency to have an easy and straightforward way for customers to report or flag incidents that make them feel unsafe.

Last April, the official Opposition at city hall, Ensemble Montréal, called on the STM to set up a telephone and text line which would allow users to get immediate assistance if there was an emergency or safety problem.

The idea of a text line is being studied, said Régis, the STM spokesperson.

In each train, there are intercoms to communicate with the Metro operators, and at Metro stations there are emergency assistance phones that allow transit users to speak directly with the control room.

Régis said customers can also reach out to them via social media, through their contact us page or by phone.