News  Eating on the streets

The challenges of Montreal food banks

You can’t just show up to many of Montreal’s 16 major city food banks.

Many trips require a mess of requirements – proof of address, proof of welfare, proof of work, and sometimes an interview – and visits are restricted to only once or twice a month.

According to Matthew Pierce, director of the Old Brewery Mission, the list of verifications aims to motivate people to establish stable living conditions.

“One reason [for requirements] is to encourage people to seek solutions and not get ensconced in a shelter,” he said.

The Mission is Quebec’s largest men’s shelter, the largest women’s shelter in Canada, and one of the few which has none of the requirements standard in other shelters.

Laden with stipulations and inadequate provisions, food banks are not feasible options for many who may be in the greatest need of their services.

“Ever seen [a] Sun Youth [food bank]? They have stuff you wouldn’t even sell in stores – they keep the good stuff for employees,” said a homeless man known as Superman who lives with a group of men on the grounds of the Anglican Christ Church on Ste. Catherine.

Superman explained that food banks are unrealistic options for the homeless population, leaving many to dine on a combination of produce, fast food, and Tim Horton’s.

“I used to eat McDonald’s every day, and then my heart started to hurt – so I switched to Subway. It’s healthier,” said New Kid, another of the Christ Church gang.

But Matthew Kay, director of NDG Food Depot, explained that homeless present a greater challenge to food banks than clients with apartments.

“The homeless have certain unique nutritional needs. The biggest problem is we give people stuff to prepare at home, and a lot of them don’t have stoves,” said Kay. “Many [also] just don’t have utensils or can openers.”

But the homeless aren’t picky, just hungry. When asked what kind of food another man named Toby likes, Superman replied, “He likes to eat food.”

“Food is food,” Toby agreed.

Superman, Kay, and Pierce all noted, however, that welfare fails to move the homeless from the streets, mainly because it simply does not offer enough – only $536 per month according to le Collectif pour un Quebec Sans Pauvreté.

“$500 a month [in welfare] won’t last anyone 48 hours with heat, bills, phones, bus passes, food. I was starved when I had an apartment,” said Superman.

A side effect of welfare insufficiency, Pierce noted, is that midmonth, when many deplete their checks, the Old Brewery’s clientele spikes.

Furthermore, Montreal shelters receive only 20 per cent of their budget from the provincial government, forcing them to rely on individual or corporate donations, the income from which is inconsistent.

Shelters in Toronto receive full government funding.

For the homeless, to get a job and stop relying on welfare just isn’t that easy, according to Pierce.

“We’re talking about Montreal’s most excluded, vulnerable people, who don’t have options,” said Pierce. “Thirty-five per cent of our clients suffer from debilitating mental illness. Those clients are not people who can go out and get a job. A background of a homeless person is more complex than people realize.”

Unfortunately, the food banks the homeless can access seem just as ill-equipped to provide for them as the welfare checks.

“[Some places] give you two-and-a-half bags of food and it’s supposed to last two people a week. I went through mine in one-and-a-half days,” Superman said.

Superman and his friends make do with what they can acquire themselves from welfare and minimum wage jobs. Sometimes, their methods are creative, Superman said, claiming he has traded joints for hamburgers at a local restaurant.

“I haven’t lost weight since I was on the streets because people are more willing to give you food. You get a lot of people who like to measure where their money goes,” he said. “At the end of the day my belly’s full and I have money for cigarettes and pot.”