He has a doctorate in philosophy, was steadily employed for 40 years and still expresses himself with ease and clarity, speaking in a French so refined it’s hard not to notice. But for his own reasons, he’s also spent the last decade sleeping on Montreal’s streets.
At 77 years old, without any known living family members, he says it’s his choice to do so: He enjoys the freedom homelessness allows him.
But then five months ago police found him lying motionless in a street near Old Montreal. He had been beaten so badly he was left with a fractured femur and broken ribs.
A case heard at the Montreal courthouse in late October raised the difficult question that then followed: Should the courts intervene to force a homeless person off the street for their own protection? In this case, the answer was no.
“These are never easy cases,” lawyer Patrick Martin-Ménard, who represented the man in court, said. “There’s a balancing act required between a person’s protection and their freedom and fundamental rights.”
The man’s identity cannot be reported. It’s the hospital where he was treated for two months following the beating, the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM), that sought a court order to have him moved into a long-term care centre, or CHSLD.
Following complications from his surgeries, including him needing a urinary catheter, hospital staff had witnessed the man losing weight and refusing to take his medication. They feared he was too vulnerable to return to living on the street.
The hospital turned to the courts to have the man ordered to stay in a CHSLD for at least the next two years. He objected.
“In terms of the risks he faces, the defendant claims to be familiar with the ‘hazards of homelessness’ since he’s been homeless for so long,” Superior Court Judge Michel Yergeau wrote in his recent ruling. “But he does not want to deprive himself of the freedom this life gives him.”
For the request to be granted, it needed to meet the same criteria as when hospitals seek treatment orders for people who refuse care.
The judge needed to determine whether the man was capable of understanding his situation, giving his consent and whether he categorically refused the idea of moving into the centre.
In his ruling, Yergeau detailed the two sides to the man’s personality, describing him as someone who “defies all characterizations and clichés” and whose case presents a “surprising paradox.”
On one hand, he wrote, the man has displayed behaviours in recent years that are “on the margins of the acceptable.”
His poor personal hygiene has seen him turned away from homeless shelters. He’s also prone to occasional “exhibitionism.” When he briefly moved into a boarding house in 2017, he was kicked out for excessive hoarding.
On the other, Yergeau ruled, he’s a well-educated man who has no addiction problems or serious psychiatric history. He was calm and orderly throughout the court proceedings, politely answering questions and explaining his position.
As he told his lawyer in court, “it is not because someone is homeless that he does not read Le Monde diplomatique, Le Figaro, Le Devoir or The New York Times.”
Yergeau heard testimony from doctors who evaluated the man, as well as members of the Montreal police’s homeless squad that have helped him through the years.
One officer told the court she’s offered to help find the man housing “tens of times” through the years but he’s always insisted on remaining homeless.
After hearing the case, Yergeau issued his ruling on Oct. 31. Though he noted the hospital was acting on a “sincere desire” to protect him, Yergeau ruled the evidence showed the man was capable of making his own decisions. The judge rejected the hospital’s request for a court order.
Martin-Ménard welcomed the judgment and praised how the judge took his client’s “particular situation” into consideration. In a sense, he agreed, the case ended in what can be seen as a happy middle ground.
The man had initially refused to move into the centre because he feared what it would mean for the freedom he’s grown accustomed to.
He had heard of all the rules in CHSLDs, he told the court, and their “military”-like restrictions.
But when a provisional court order saw him transferred to a centre after his release from the hospital, a short adjustment period gave way to something else: To his surprise, he noticed he was free to come and go as he pleased.
In the nearly four months he’s since spent there, the judgment notes, he’s started putting weight back on and hasn’t had any disciplinary issues. The staff on hand also help make sure he’s taking his medication regularly.
The man told the court he’s open to staying there moving forward. He just doesn’t want a court order forcing him to. As for the centre, it said he will have a room there “for as long as he wishes.”