W hen I sat down to interview Joey Saganash, our conversation had to be cut short because two people with scabies, a highly contagious skin infection, had entered the premises and needed to be removed.
Saganash is the director of the Ka’ wàhse Street Patrol, a mobile homeless support unit based out of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal (NFCM). Taking its name from the Mohawk word for “where are you going?” Ka’ wàhse operates three to four patrols per week, providing four basic core services to Montreal’s homeless aboriginal people: meals, toiletries, clothing, and active listening – the concept of meeting expressions of need with empathy and suggestions for help. Saganash, Cree himself, described the Patrol’s clientele, saying, “There are some people from [reserve] communities, for sure, but they have many years on the streets, many years in Montreal, many years migrating all over Canada. We get at least 1,000 clients in a month. In addition to the four core services, we also do intervention, transport, bringing them to detox, and that adds up to at least 6,000 services in a month.” The client’s mental health is also a large concern for the Patrol; Saganash explained that “you get cases of mental illness that slip through the cracks and wind up in Montreal, no support whatsoever, no diagnoses, no pills.”
As our brief interview was ending, I asked Saganash if myself and my photographer and roommate Nate could accompany him on the evening’s patrol and speak with some of the clients. As long as we both signed release of liability forms, I was told. “Talk to them at your discretion, you know? If you get attacked, it’s not my problem,” he laughed.
We returned to the Centre at 5 o’clock, release forms signed, to find Saganash loading the van with juice, hot coffee, dozens of sandwiches, and various assorted blankets and clothing. A line-up quickly formed at the open doors of the van. When one client asked for sugar and milk, his friend jokingly replied “It’s not Tim Horton’s, man.”
The drinks and food were distributed by two other NFCM workers, Arlene Cross and Curtis. Cross is a non-native women originally from Cape Breton who has been with the Centre for 13 years. Though she’s roughly five feet tall, Cross exerts a massive maternal presence and created a sense of safety throughout the evening. Curtis is 19 years old and told me he’d been “on the van” for the past four weeks.
When the van was fully packed, we all jumped in and departed. We were joined by Véronique Mireault, a “travailleuse de rue,” (outreach worker) from CACTUS Montréal, a community needle-exchange program. Through my broken French and her broken English, I learned that she had been with CACTUS for two years, but had worked as a social worker for the past five. Saganash drove, Cross rode shotgun. “I can’t even see over the dashboard,” she hollered, laughing.
Driving to the area around lower St. Laurent, Saganash spoke of his difficulties in acquiring funding. About three years ago, Ka’ wàhse’s funding from Service Canada was drastically cut, leaving the Patrol with about 45 dollars monthly for food. “I started to work on our social economy,” Saganash said. “We signed an agreement with Justice Québec for interpreters and translators. We also signed an agreement a year ago with Securité Publique, [with a mandate] to reduce criminality in the Ville Marie sector. So we got two more workers under that funding.”
Because homelessness is, by its very definition, a state of existence devoid of a fixed personal space, the urban homeless are constantly required to migrate from place to place within the city. When we arrived at a small square on St. Laurent just south of Ste. Catherine, Saganash and Cross began spotting clients that they recognized from various places around lower St. Laurent.
At the square, known as “Peace Park,” more sandwiches and coffee were served, and a dozen or so homeless people approached the van. A woman with a tear tattooed under her right eye asked Cross if she could have some gloves. “Of course not, honey!” Cross teased, as she got the gloves out of the van. “Joey, is this blanket for someone in particular?”
“No, it’s for anybody,” Saganash replied, as the heavy blanket was thrust into eager arms.
It wasn’t long before a police squad car arrived. An officer jumped on top of a bench, searching for drug paraphernalia next to people eating their sandwiches. Nate snapped a few shots as, noticing us, the officers approached the van to investigate our presence. Saganash spoke to them and they shortly left, satisfied that we weren’t doing anything illegal. “We’re here several times a week, and still they don’t know us,” Saganash brooded.
After the cops left, I spoke to Kim, a homeless aboriginal woman of roughly 40 originally from New Brunswick and living in Montreal for four years. Kim paints a fairly bleak portrait of life. “The weekends are the hardest for the homeless. The homelessness does not end when the week ends. Maybe you guys work from nine to five, but the homeless continue,” she said, struggling to get the words out. Kim also alluded to the importance of the Street Patrol and the gaps it fills, saying, “If you guys don’t help us, the homeless have to do really bad things to survive. And with all the things that are going on right now, [homelessness] is increasing.” She continued, “We see people on the street we’ve never seen before, we’re seeing some shit we’ve never seen before. Look, I was on the street since I was 11, and I’m seeing people that shouldn’t be here. I mean I shouldn’t be here either, but I’m used to it. But the new ones, they can’t hack it, ‘cause they really don’t belong here. They disappear and they die.”
Once back inside the van, Saganash vented his frustration at the officers’ behaviour. “[The police chief] has gotta talk to his freakin’ workers… ‘cause their intervention is so aggressive. They never take any time when they’re doing an intervention. Time is the key element to an intervention. They got their big guns and everything…. They tell me ‘Assis-toi! Assis-toi!’ (‘[Sit down! Sit down!]’) and they’re giving me orders. Just that gives me a negative vibe of them. They’re so cocky.”
We returned to the Centre to make more sandwiches and eat some food ourselves. Saganash talked of his upbringing, splitting his time between Montreal and the Cree communities of northern Quebec, where he got in fights with other Cree because he’s part white. We talked about skateboarding (he was at one time semi-professional), tattoos (he has a large buffalo skull on his right bicep), and his plans for prisoner reintegration services at the centre.
To say that the Ka’ wàhse Street Patrol is a labour of love would be a gross understatement. People like Saganash and Cross build bridges where a lack of government funding burned them in the first place. The cycle of homelessness must be broken, and groups like the Street Patrol, by humanizing rather than ignoring the homeless, are helping them get back on their feet – one cup of coffee at a time.