Features | Blankets, sugar, and hot-air vents

How Quebec's biggest shelter is helping Montreal's homeless cope with winter

Go immediately south of the unmistakeable paifang that welcomes you to Chinatown and you’ll see what is probably the largest, and certainly the most striking, public art display in Montreal. There, graffiti climbs up the walls, tall and sheer like a concrete glacier, of the Old Brewery Mission: There’s a subway train that seems to be ploughing towards you. A black and red Haida raven stares from above the fifth story windows. The silhouette of an oak tree fades away at the branches. There is a small but conspicuous crucifix on the roof.

And though you might miss them amidst the artistic fireworks, most afternoons there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men lining up outside. These men are homeless, and they are waiting to claim a bed for the night inside the graffitied walls, under the cross-adorned roof.

The Mission is the largest private homeless shelter in Canada and the largest male shelter – public or private – in Quebec. Its main building on Clark, the Webster Pavilion, houses up to 319 men. Here, they are offered emergency shelter, free meals, showers, clothing, and counselling on a first-come, first-serve basis. Webster Pavilion also offers transition services, where men get to work one-on-one with counsellors, who focus on helping the men get jobs and become self-sufficient.

I arrived there on a recent Thursday afternoon, just as a line was beginning to form outside.

Inside, I met Michelle Meurnier, communications director for the Mission. A young and animated Montreal native, she’s a walking cache of information about Old Brewery Mission and its clientele. (Mission staff invariably call the homeless men using their services “clients.”)

Meurnier starts walking me through the building. The second floor houses the beds, showers, and washrooms for men using emergency services. It’s bright, with vibrant green walls. Two large, airy rooms contain long rows of bunk beds, like in a youth hostel. Meurnier tells me that the linens get changed every other day, and that every client must shower before going to bed. While they’re welcome to stay as many nights as they like – hypothetically, anyone could stay at the shelter for years on end without joining a transition program – there’s no guarantee that a client will have the same bed for more than a couple nights. This, Meurnier said, is to make sure clients don’t become “too comfortable.”

Since the main shelter is only available at night, the rooms were empty, with the exception of one man, who was lying on a bottom corner bunk. His leg was in a cast.

“We make exceptions for the sick,” Meurnier whispered to me, anxious not to disturb the lone man.

I know the rules are intended for the benefit of the homeless, and may well be beneficial. But it must be strange, I think, for grown men to take instructions from a staff of professionals, to be told when to wash and in which beds they may sleep.

***

At this point I was hoping that my tour of the shelter would be short, so that I could join the clients in the cafeteria for dinner. Michelle told me that I would probably not get the opportunity to speak to anyone.

I was also disappointed to hear I would not be able to see Webster’s third and fourth floors, which act as temporary homes for those using the transition programs. Meurnier told me that she doesn’t like to “show off” the clients and the shelter, because “it becomes like a zoo.”

She’s right about this. They have enough to contend with without me sticking my tape recorder in their faces. I came here because Montreal’s homeless are too often ignored. Now I was being careful not to stare.

Still, when we came back downstairs, I asked Meurnier once more if I could speak to a client. I was there to report, after all. And so she returned a moment later with a thin, stern-looking man wearing an apron. He introduced himself as Derek, although I had earlier heard a staff member call him “Patrovksy.” Later on, after he had became more comfortable speaking to me, he told me that everyone at the shelter calls him “Patrovsky” because no one can pronounce his name, and “Patrovsky” is the Polish equivalent of the English surname Smith. He reached into his chest pocket for his wallet, and placed his ID card on the table in front of me, pointing at his name in the bottom-left corner.

“Say it how it’s written,” he told me. I tried, but immediately butchered the Polish, so gave up and resorted to calling him Derek. I laughed, and I saw, for the first time, a smile creep on to his face.

Derek came to Montreal from Poland over twenty years ago. He did not share many details about his personal story, but I could sense some lingering resentment over how he has been treated in the past.

“Nobody likes the homeless, so they push them away,” he told me.

Derek is in the first step of Old Brewery Mission’s transition program. Although this is his second try with the program, he assured me he is serious this time around about making a change. He didn’t specify what he meant by this. He said that he wasn’t ready before, and that he needed to prepare himself mentally before returning to Webster.

“So far it works very well,” Derek said of the program.

Now he volunteers in the cafeteria. Because he’s not a “troublemaker,” he told me, he’s well-liked by the staff.

***

After speaking with Derek, I saw the cafeteria was beginning to fill up. At each place-setting was a large mug – Meurnier later told me coffee is served in abundance at the shelter. Some alcoholic clients, she said, use it as a replacement for alcohol. Strangely enough, there was also a package of individually wrapped caramels at each place.

(Most of the food served by the Mission is donated. In fact, half its funding comes from private donors, while the other half comes from the three branches of government – and this portion must be put toward emergency services.)

I followed Meurnier to a table at the far end of the cafeteria, where an older, white-haired man named Yvon was seated, working on a large plate of pasta. Yvon and Meurnier chatted for a few moments in French while I stood by, understanding little. Yvon finally looked at me, smiled, and offered me a caramel.

He didn’t seem to speak English, but Meurnier later told me about him. Like many others, Yvon lost his job before coming to live at the Webster Pavilion. He went straight into a transition program, and is now on the wait list for one of the thirty apartments available at the Marcelle and Jean Coutu Pavilion, located just around the corner from Webster. During the day, he likes to help out with small tasks at the Mission’s administrative office around the corner on St. Antoine.

Graduating from one of the Mission’s transition programs isn’t a guarantee of success. Meurnier told me about Mike, whose path to homelessness also began with a lost job. He had worked at a bank branch. As an Anglophone, he didn’t have much luck finding another job in Montreal, so, after losing his home, he uprooted his wife and children and moved to Toronto. There, he began to develop signs of depression and started drinking. Not long afterward, his wife left him, and his children, now grown up, moved back to Montreal. He came to Old Brewery, and immediately began a transition program.

“Now it’s the mystery of what happens next,” Meurnier said. She hasn’t heard from Mike in two months.

***

Despite what they have in common, Meurnier stressed that the shelter’s clientele is diverse, complex. While the economy and job loss are often factors, Meurnier recited a grim list of causes for homelessness: divorce, tragedy, addiction, mental illness. (The latter is particularly acute among women – 70 per cent of the Mission’s female clients, whom they serve at locations around the city, have been diagnosed with mental illness, compared to 40 per cent of male clients).

I asked Robert Lavigne, chief of emergency services at Webster, what they were doing for homeless men with addictions. I had recently read about 1811 Eastlake, a unique housing project in Seattle that allows homeless, chronic alcoholics to continue drinking in their apartments. According to a recent study on the effectiveness of the program, published in the American Journal of Public Health, residents of Eastlake consumed significantly less alcohol per day than they had on the street. Research has shown that the program also costs less money for taxpayers.

Lavigne was skeptical about how it would work at Old Brewery Mission shelters:

“We have programs for people to take their lives back in their hands [and] I think it would be a bit contradictory if we allow individuals to come into the same house and consume alcohol – even pot – when we have other people in the same building trying to rid themselves of the addiction problem.”

“In the future it’s obvious we’re going to be discussing these issues,” he continued, “but at the moment…we’re not going to open up that door yet.”

With or without addiction, the bitter Montreal winters make everyday an uphill battle for those living on the streets. Some spend more time in the malls, in the metro, or near big building vents that push out warm air. Others will eat sugar to keep their energy up. Old Brewery Mission gives out winter clothing starting December 1, unless a snow storm hits beforehand. Lavigne told me that these garments are especially “hard to replenish each year.”

“We don’t run out, because we do such a good job begging to the public,” he said. A tin-eared remark, given where we were.

When I left Webster almost an hour later, clients were still trickling through the doorways to claim whatever was left of dinner. Soon, those that were not using the mission’s transition services would have to leave. They would either come back later in the evening to claim a bed on the second floor, or find a place to sleep elsewhere: at another shelter, in a nook at Champs de Mars Metro, or hidden under a bundle of old blankets on a street corner.

“You never know exactly what they’re doing, where they are,” Meurnier said.


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