Shock and distress vibrated through a bustling urban homeless shelter in downtown Montreal — the pulse of the city’s Projets Autochtones du Québec (PAQ) community — following a harrowing event of eight individuals suffering from overdoses. On a quiet Sunday, uncertainty lingered in the air as local law enforcement puzzled over whether a solitary substance used by all was the common thread binding the ominous string of overdoses occurring consecutively. By Monday morning, most of the affected had stabilized, barring a single woman gripped in a critical condition.
Panic first gripped the corner of St-Dominique and Ontario Streets at approximately 4:10 p.m., merely a stone’s throw from the PAQ shelter nestled inside the Hôtel des Arts. Even as emergency services were being summoned, quick-thinking shelter employees administered the lifesaving opioid antidote naloxone. Among the eight victims, four were urgently whisked away to the hospital, one of them a 42-year-old woman bravely clinging to life.
An hour later, under the same roof, a secondary incident revealed two men suffering overdoses. Heather Johnston, PAQ’s executive director, assured that both men were stable upon reaching the hospital. She eloquently relayed the profound shock and devastation rippling through both staff and residents. Describing the shelter as a tightly woven community, Johnston emphasized the outpouring of empathetic support among the members.
Jean-Sébastien Fallu, a respected associate professor at the Université de Montréal’s School of Psychoeducation, highlighted the gravity of the situation, terming it as a “public health crisis”. He voiced his urgent call to provide a safer supply, iterating that the implementation of mandatory treatments, drug checking, and safe injection sites, albeit critical, alone won’t suffice.
Hamde Mohammed, a shelter worker, emphasized his observation of escalating drug-related issues in the locality over the past year. His concern echoed Heather Johnston’s lament over the proliferation of “dirty drugs” and overdoses. She asserted that the coalescent crises of homelessness and housing exist hand-in-hand, necessitating far-reaching dialogue, discussion, and partnerships at all societal strata.
In the heart of this public health crisis, Montreal’s Public Health Department affirmed its ongoing investigation into the overdoses, promising a concerted effort to fully comprehend the situation and potential risk to the population. Tragic data divulged by the Department revealed that in August alone, 11 overdoses were reported, the highest in a single month since October 2020. Furthermore, in the year ending March 31, 2023, there were 172 overdose-related deaths, a disturbing increase from the preceding period’s 134 deaths and the 170 in 2020-21.
Further amplifying concern, the coroner’s findings reported traces of deadly fentanyl in the bodies of 42 of the deceased in the 2022-23 period. This number demonstrated a worrying escalation from 29 the preceding year and a mere 11 in 2019-20.