News  The Open Door shelter awaits relocation this October

A community expresses the necessity of empowerment and empathy

Content Warning: sexual abuse, suicide

The Open Door, a drop-in centre which provides services to homeless and low-income people located in St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, is scheduled to relocate to Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette in Milton Park near the end of October. The shelter, which was started in 1988 and has been operating for the past thirty years, was recently sold to a condominium developer which is forcing The Open Door to move locations. According to its website, The Open Door helps between 1800 and 2200 people per month, some of those people being either regular, occasional, or one-time visitors. The center is open every day from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday but there are hopes that the new move will help facilitate an extension of the hours the centre is open during the day.

The Open Door provides several services for it’s visitors. They cater to “immediate needs” offering breakfast and full course meals from the morning until its closing time, as well as a clothing depot, and the services of a retired nurse who works on site every operating day. It also provides visitors with hair cuts every Friday, a laundry room, a free phone line, free eye glasses, spiritual counselling, as well as a worship team which engages people with live music as part of its goal to “build up the self worth” of those staying at The Open Door.

In an interview with the Daily, David Chapman, the director of The Open Door, explained that one of the unique aspects of The Open Door is that “we also have a policy where if we know that someone’s working through a trauma and they’re really at their wit’s end we will make it so that the rest of the community adapts themselves to that person.”

To put it another way, says Chapman, “it’s the only place in the city of Montreal where you can come in and scream and yell for 25 minutes […] if we know that someone has just lost a loved one or who is at their wit’s end we’ll make a way [for them to work through their trauma].” There is a psychologist who comes in and meets with people individually.

The Open Door does not have an emission policy. While the centre is not technically a wet shelter, as they do not serve alcohol to visitors, it does admit people who are highly intoxicated and provide them with the same services. At larger centres, if someone is visibly intoxicated, they are not allowed in, explained Chapman.

“we also have a policy where if we know that someone’s working through a trauma and they’re really at their wit’s end we will make it so that the rest of the community adapts themselves to that person.”

In terms of reintegration into society, The Open Door has a Job Search Centre which helps people with writing cover letters and resumes, and which also has volunteers who help search databases for temporary, seasonal, and part time jobs. A training program in conjunction with Emploi Quebec which provides an income increase to participants; however, Chapman explained that this program is not usually as helpful in practice than it is in theory. Many of these applications require extensive paperwork and identification, which does not take into account the difficulty of the situations of many of those who are homeless, where many of them have had their identification paperwork stolen.

Chapman says that it is an easier process for many of those who are homeless to apply to jobs at The Open Door itself. The whole center is run by the homeless community themselves including the laundry service, the kitchen, and the front desk. This aspect, explains Chapman, breaks down categories of volunteer, employee, and visitors. The Open Door operates with the idea of “the homeless serving the homeless.”

James, a volunteer with The Open Door explained to the Daily how he started off helping out at the centre by doing his community hours there from November 2017 to February 2018 before becoming a full-time volunteer in March 2018.

The Open Door operates with the idea of “the homeless serving the homeless.”

“I was having a lot of problems with my back […] I had an infection from drug use and it resulted in surgery […] so I was having a hard time walking so I figured if I could come here and do my community service it would be easier when I finished that I decided to stay on because […] Zack and David who were running the place […] they’re authentic [in what they say and do] and it really inspired me and I started feeling really good about being here with them and learning from them,” said James.

“I stayed on as a volunteer here and I just recently applied for a grant so that the government would supply my wages and they agreed to it so I’ll be able to stay on […] I want to stay on for as long as possible.”

Chapman also explained how many people of Inuit background he has met at The Open Door come to Quebec from Northern Canada in order to obtain medical services and choose to stay in the province. However, due to the requirement of those who work in Quebec to speak French, many are unable to find permanent jobs. According to a document written by Donat Savoie and Sylvie Cornez, advisors to the Makivik Corporation (one of the partners of The Open Door), other reasons for migration include physical and sexual abuse, primarily of Inuit women.

Anna*, an Inuit woman staying at The Open Door, was one of the most recent visitors who was given a plane ticket back to her home community in Northern Canada, returning home after leaving an abusive relationship. Anna was one of the twelve visitors who was able to be flown back to her community, a program which Chapman provides for visitors who have experienced extensive hardship acclimating to life in Montreal.

The centre also has a housing program primarily for its Inuit visitors. In September 2016, The Open Door received approval from the Government of Canada’s federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy for a grant which enabled the center to house and support up to 16 Inuit men and women in a permanent housing location. As of April 30, 2017, ten individuals have been given housing.

In terms of its own housing, The Open Door has been operating in St. Stephen’s Anglican Church for the most part of the last 30 years. However, its move to the new location has its logistical as well as its emotional challenges. Many of the visitors of The Open Door have been living in Atwater and will find it difficult to get to the new location in Milton Park.

Kevin, a regular visitor to The Open Door explained to the Daily, “when they move I don’t know what these people in Atwater are going to do.. […] .unless they’re going to go all the way to Parc Avenue […] maybe they’ll be able to get a bus from here to go there.” For the first few months, The Open Door is planning to have volunteers waiting in Cabot Square near St. Stephen’s Church who will help people get on the metro to go to the new centre.

The new location is expected to also include essential renovations.

Chapman expressed some of his hopes for renovations in the new space, which included a commercial kitchen with walk-in fridge, laundry facilities, private offices for counselling, and a dedicated shop for the centre’s Soapstone Carving Program where Inuit peoples show Inuit peoples how to carve soapstone, a native cultural practice.

In the current location, “you can get clothes or get washing done […] the only thing they don’t have [which] they used to [have] and [which] the new one [will have] I think is a shower […] [currently there is also] only one bathroom […] and nine out of ten times you go to the bathroom there’s someone there,” says Kevin.

James also explained how the new space will also hopefully allow The Open Door to extend their hours in order to house more visitors during the day.

“These people are left out on the street […] then they get tickets for loitering and they get tickets for this and that but what do you expect them to do? If they had day centers to go to there would probably be a lot less loitering in the parks.”

Chapman explained that the new move has been in the works for the last two years, during which he has visited forty potential spaces for the new location. He has faced the same response: “Not here please…we like what you’re doing [but] not here please.”

“These people are left out on the street […] then they get tickets for loitering and they get tickets for this and that but what do you expect them to do? If they had day centers to go to there would probably be a lot less loitering in the parks.”

“When you’re a homeless center it’s actually quite complicated because no one really wants you in their neighborhood. Most people like the idea of having services for the homeless and having resources like intervention workers [who] take people to detox and rehab […] and access to healthcare and housing and this sort of thing but […] when it comes to actually having it in their neighborhood all of a sudden there’s a new spirit that emerges so […] this is something we have seen firsthand.”

Throughout its years of operation, The Open Door has received mixed responses from nearby residents. People have different reactions to the “exact same phenomenon”, says Chapman.

There are some people who think “‘here’s a complicated human problem called homelessness [and] we should pitch in and do something about it’ and they’ll come in and make soup and volunteer and [then] we’ll have others who simply complain about the inconvenience of it to their life.”

James, however, has another outlook to services to The Open Door. “I think [my favourite thing about volunteering here] is the people and the connections that I have it’s being able to help people…I go home at night and I feel good”

There are some people who think “‘here’s a complicated human problem called homelessness [and] we should pitch in and do something about it’ and they’ll come in and make soup and volunteer and [then] we’ll have others who simply complain about the inconvenience of it to their life.”

“You really realize the importance of relationships because you never know what’s going to happen…twenty-four hours can change a lot.”

*name has been changed to preserve anonymity