Where Murray St. dead ends at the Lachine Canal, you can find MichÃ¤el Pinet’s “backyard’. You aren’t likely, however, to spot the tiny entrance to his squat unless you know to look for a hole of about one meter squared, cut into the backside of an abandoned CN Rail building.
Pinet, just 22 years old, has been living at the edge of the canal since June. Today, Tuesday Nov. 17, is a special day: Pinet is moving out. After seven months living in what he describes as “the bunker,” a heavy concrete building covered in generations of graffiti, the layers so old they’re cracked and peeling off the walls, he’s hoping to get a new start in life. Someone has offered to let him move into their Verdun suite. The offer comes just in time: winter is beginning to bear down and the concrete structure keeps out the wind &- but not the cold.
On this particular Tuesday afternoon, the canal in his backyard is washed in golden light, but the November sun fails to warm the chilly air. The city seems far away. The quiet is broken only by the sound of a train clacking past on the nearby tracks every twenty minutes.
Pinet says he’ll miss the view of the city from the third floor of the building, and it’s true &- Montreal does show off nicely from the terrace. On the south side, just across the canal, is Montreal’s famous Five Roses sign.
This is Pinet’s second time living on Montreal’s city streets. He was just 18 years old when he hit the streets for the first time. After living with his father for almost a year – “it was rough,” is all he’ll say about that period – he joined the ranks of the homeless because it was better than continuing to live with his dad.
He admits he wasn’t a saintly kid by any stretch of the imagination, saying he gave his mom a hard time growing up; stealing and lying “to get attention.”
“I didn’t get the attention I craved when I did good things,” says Pinet, “but when I did bad things, at least my mom looked at me and there was that interaction. So I kept doing it… the bad behaviour.”
His first homeless experience happened not because of drugs &- he stays away from hard drugs &- but because he felt he had no other choice. “If I had had another option to being on the street, I would have done it. But sometimes without a job, without any money, without other options, you can’t end up anywhere else,” he says.
This second round of homelessness began when his girlfriend kicked him out of her place last June after suffering a miscarriage. The girl eventually committed suicide because, according to Pinet, she was depressed over losing the baby. He says he had done everything he could to make her happy, “and it still wasn’t enough.”
Determined to find a safe place to stow his belongings during the day, Pinet came across the CN building when visiting a friend. Poking around in the windowless basement &- “it was really dirty, but interesting,” he decided, “OK, let’s go, let’s do it, let’s make a room there.”
To set up his squat, Pinet fashioned a table and a counter as he tried his best to build some kind of lifestyle where he could find himself “at home, without it being “un chez nous’.” His real difficulty was hefting the materials for the table and some chairs up a ladder to the third floor so he could get them into the building.
Most of his friends don’t even know he’s squatting. Pinet prides himself on living clean, showering as often as he can and doing his laundry at the nearby Maison Benoit L’arbre. He put up a sheet of plastic at the end of his bed to keep off the flakes of paint and graffiti while he sleeps. He keeps his bedding rolled up and wrapped in plastic during the day so it doesn’t get damp, because “you just can’t get warm if it’s at all wet,” he says.
When asked what he is most looking forward to about living indoors, Pinet immediately replies, “warmth.” Next on the list is “being able to bring friends home, and ask them if they want to drink, and to be able to give them a drink in a glass.” But most of all, he’s looking forward to security. “When you sleep there, at home, you know you won’t be disturbed by anyone.”
The worst part about squatting, he says, is the insecurity. “It’s never knowing whether someone was going to come and wake you up. Or if someone [would] break in and beat you up. It was safe, but not a real kind of safety.”
He hasn’t been disturbed so far, although he says if he’s found out by the police or the fire department &- his only light in the pitch-black basement is an oil lamp, which could be considered a fire hazard &- the city fines would be well over $2,000.
For that reason, Pinet doesn’t invite anyone into the basement. He lived alone until just over a month ago when he invited a second homeless man, who has been living on the street for 28 years, to move in with him. A third joined them two weeks later. The three share food and smokes, each providing what they can from bumming or whatever work they can find. They sometimes hold parties in “the bar” on the top floor of the building, where Pinet shows me one of his works of graffiti art &- sprayed over generous layers of older graffiti art &- and “the best view of the city.”
Pinet doesn’t regret spending seven months in this squat. “I regret a lot of things, but I don’t regret being on the street the second time. It made me open my eyes, it made me feel life for the first time. My life was shit, but I decided to make something out of it. It’s coming up good now.”
Pinet says his watershed moment came when he invited a 58-year-old homeless man, who has been on the street for almost 30 years, to move into the CN building with him. He asked himself if he still wanted to be homeless at that age. “Looking at him, I thought, “Do I want to be that? Collecting bottles in the street? Squatting when I’m 50?’ I have dreams… I want to be married, have kids around me, train for a job…”
Pinet’s last job was working as an industrial cleaner at a chicken farm, where he met his late girlfriend. He worked there about 10 months, staying on even as he moved into his squat, and only quitting mid-August. He managed to put off going on social assistance until three months ago. Now, he gets a cheque for $588.88 on the first of every month. “I know I can get more than that if I ask for it, because I was living on the street and could [claim to] have depression, but I don’t want to.”
Pinet says he’s interested in becoming a policeman, a social worker, or even a paramedic, as long as it’s a profession that helps others. “You know, even though I never had that encouragement in my life, no one gave me the tap on the back to push me forward and see what I can do… I know I have that in me to give to others. I want to give them that push forward that I never got.”
Looking for a job is hard when you’re homeless, says Pinet. “I tried lots of job service [agencies], but honestly they have a lot of work to improve the services. They just say, “get your CV together, ok go look for a job here.’ They leave you to yourself.”
He says they don’t really offer much help to the homeless. “Some say, “you need an apartment, you need clothes, you need a shower before you can get a job.”
Now that he’s moving into an actual apartment, with an address that he can put on job application forms, Pinet says he’s been given the leg up he needs. He plans to go back to school in January to finish his secondary education.
“I’m starting to really live now, I’m starting to have a life now.”
The ground-floor, one-bedroom apartment in Verdun where Pinet now lives is small and sparse but cozy. Playing on the TV in the corner is the latest James Bond film. Simon (not his real name), a smiley, obviously open-hearted man who welcomed Pinet into his place, jumps up to shake hands. He is a fortysomething year-old francophone truck driver, more out of work than in.
He met Pinet when the latter’s younger brother introduced them just three days earlier. He says he found him “sympathique” and wanted to give him a hand. Without knowing much about Pinet, Simon offered to let him move in immediately, giving up his own bed and sleeping on the couch in the living room.
The two get along well: seeing them together is like watching a French version of Abbott and Costello. Simon likes to cook &- Pinet says he’s good at it&- and Pinet does his share by cleaning the place. It seems Simon was a bit lonely and having the younger man around has brightened up his days. “It makes it fun, to have someone to talk to.”
“We both laugh, we both make jokes, we get along great. We are “un bon match’,” says the older man, beaming. “Even if the fridge is a little bare,” he laughs.
Simon’s own story shows he understands hardship: he takes pills for mild depression and because he has trouble finding work in the trucking industry, he lives off social assistance. He’s also a recovering crack addict who spent six months in the Maison Bonsecours program one year ago, and has since been clean of his crack addiction.
He says if he has the chance to help someone like Pinet, he’s going to “give him a hand.” He’s clearly got a big heart. “If I had the means, I’d open a home for young people like this to help them get a new start,” he says expansively.
Simon’s face is sober as he looks at photographs of Pinet’s squat, taken just four days earlier. “I couldn’t live in a place like that,” he says. He figures he would have taken “the easy way” and chosen to live in a shelter rather than a squat.
However, the picture isn’t all rosy: barely four days after moving in, Pinet finds out that Simon is not actually a recovering cocaine addict, but a practicing one.
Coming back to his new place one night, Pinet finds Simon snorting lines off the kitchen table. He apparently borrowed money from his sister and called his dealer minutes later. There are empty beer bottles everywhere, and according to Pinet, Simon is drunk and high all weekend.
Pinet finds out from the dealer that Simon owes him over $500. He worries that if he gives Simon cash for rent on Dec. 1, it will go immediately to drugs. Simon keeps offering him liquor and coke but Pinet doesn’t take him up on it. Now that he’s been given a second chance to get on his feet, he says he doesn’t want to blow it.
“I’m going to keep on looking for a job,” says Pinet. “Nothing has changed.”
Pinet isn’t planning to move out just yet and he’s still thankful for Simon’s kindness. “He gave me a roof over my head. We get along. He knows what I did before and he gave me a chance.”
Even if Simon’s choice of lifestyle makes things more difficult for Pinet, it’s still better than squatting in the CN building. He says, still smiling, “I know I’m not alone anymore.”