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Fighting homelessness with art

by Abby Yaeger November 27, 2018
Fighting homelessness with art

The St-James Drop-In centre takes everything into consideration

While a blanket of fresh November snow falls on Montreal, the St-James Drop-in Centre is warm with laughter. The front room buzzes with activity, and dishes clink together as members serve lunch. In the corner of the dining area is a piano painted in bright colors. In the kitchen, crates of fresh fruits, vegetables and grains are spread out across the counters and in stacks on the floor. Downstairs in the art studio, drawings and paintings hang on the walls, unfinished projects sit on easels and shelves are lined with supplies.

St-James’s members have painted bright portraits on the piano in the centre’s dining room.
Photo by Hannah Ewen.

St-James is a community centre located in the Gay Village, about a block up from Ste-Catherine St. It’s open five days a week and serves as a space for marginalized people. Its members are predominately homeless or struggling with mental illness; as St-James intervention worker Lisa Zimanyi pointed out, the two often go hand in hand.

“We are much smaller than most centres, and the idea there is to make people feel more at home,” Zimanyi said. With just three rooms, the space is certainly cozy. “People who struggle with anxiety or different types of mental illness don’t always feel safe in larger places, so we are kind of an alternative resource for them.”

In addition to offering counselling, crisis intervention or just a conversation over a cup of coffee, the centre hosts poetry, music and art workshops. The centre’s team also hosts several art events in the community, including art exhibitions to showcase the pieces that members make. Although the centre has exhibited work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the past, Zimanyi said it’s the smaller vernissages held throughout the year that allow members to connect with the community.

According to Zimanyi, the staff at St-James works hard to get to know members on a personal level. Having worked full-time at the centre for five years, Zimanyi said she has had the chance to “accompany them through all different aspects of their life.” Although the centre provides members with a roof, a shower and hot meals, the staff’s focus isn’t just on survival. “We do meet people’s physical needs, but at the same time, we’re trying to build relationships with people,” Zimanyi said.

Members are also encouraged to volunteer and help out at the centre as much as they can. “I actually rely on the members to help me out with running the place on a day-to-day basis,” Zimanyi said. “The members feel at home, and we get to know each other in a more informal context. It’s more like a family.”

The way the centre hums with jokes, and hearing members greet each other when they walk in, it is clear St-James has created a unique atmosphere—one that feels like home.

Concerned with more than basic necessities, the St-James Drop-in Centre and art studio serves as a safe space for marginalized people.
Photo by Hannah Ewen.

Lysanne Picard is the creative arts program coordinator at St-James and oversees the Concordia art education students who intern at the centre. A Concordia alumna herself, Picard said the students are in charge of running their own workshops with the members and she encourages the students to think outside of the box. “The student workshops really add some diversity and excitement.” This year’s interns, Concordia students Stephanie Talisse and Jude Ibrahim, have done exactly that. With Talisse, members assembled and drew still-life scenes of the things they kept in their pockets. In another activity, Ibrahim had members make prints on postcards, focusing on social change and the message they want to send to the world.

“It’s really neat to see the members meet other artists and experience that artist-to-artist connection they might not get otherwise,” Picard said.

Even after members have gained some stability, they are still welcome to spend time at the centre, and many do. Paul Hicks, a long-time member who also works at the centre, joined the community in the 80s, when the centre first opened. Hicks often participates in the art workshops offered at the centre, but said he particularly enjoys working with the interns.

“I really like when the students come in and do lessons,” Hicks said. Behind him, one of his recent paintings, an intricate and colourful scene of a gondola in the canals of Venice, was hung up to dry.

A few of Hicks’s pieces, along with those of other members, will be available to purchase at the centre’s annual art sale fundraiser on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. All profits will go towards supporting the centre. Anyone searching for a unique Christmas gift or simply looking to support the centre can stop by 1442 Panet St. to shop and chat with the artists. The centre also accepts donations year-round.

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