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Home is where the heart is

by The Concordian January 12, 2016
Home is where the heart is

Formerly homeless, Frank Sthilaire recounts his 14-year journey on the streets of Montreal


The stories in this series are products of the Inclusive Journalism Project, a research initiative that seeks to develop a new way of reporting about poverty and homelessness. Whereas conventional articles speak about the poor and the homeless and address readers outside those communities, the stories produced by this project are written as dialogues, or conversations, with their subjects, and are intended to speak to their communities.

A portrait of Frank Sthilaire standing in Place Émilie-Gamelin in Downtown Montreal on November 4, 2015. While he lived on the street for 14 years, Frank pitched a tent in the park and slept there for months at a time. Photo by Matt D'Amours.

A portrait of Frank Sthilaire standing in Place Émilie-Gamelin in Downtown Montreal on November 4, 2015. While he lived on the street for 14 years, Frank pitched a tent in the park and slept there for months at a time. Photo by Matt D’Amours.

When you walk into your one-room apartment and take a seat in front of your small television, can you say that, at 51 years old, this is all you need—a single bed with warm sheets, a kitchen with a stove and a few dishes, a tiny closet space for storage?

Is this your slightly chubby cat lying here peacefully on the blanket? By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re missing some fingers when you pulled your right hand out of your pocket to stroke her head.

To be honest this cat was with me the whole 14 years I was living on the street. Right up to the night this happened to my hand last year. Fell asleep under a bridge in minus 40 degree weather. When you’re drunk you don`t feel how dangerously cold it is. At some point in the night, the right hand slipped out of its glove, and got badly frostbitten.

You told me that at the hospital they tried to restore circulation to the fingers, but it was too late—they had to amputate. I would expect someone who had most of his fingers on one hand removed would feel a sense of loss, but you tell me you gained from the experience. Remember when you said, “losing my fingers was a wake-up call … It made me put the past behind me, and look ahead to the future?”

You see, Matt, the trouble started in 2000, when family issues forced me to move out of my home. This happens to lots of people in the street. We try living with different family members, but often we find them not to be much of a long-term fit. Eventually, I stocked my backpack with supplies and spent my first night living on the street. And when you end up on the street, your heart weakens. There’s no love there—you’re completely demolished and no longer part of society.

The shock of ending up on the street must take its toll, struggling to find stability.

I tried setting up a tent at Place Émilie-Gamelin, but was eventually forced to take it down by police. Viger Park is even less welcoming; city officials routinely call on firefighters to hose you down.

I fell into a depression around that time. I didn’t have anyone and I didn’t know where to go. I drank more, and eventually, I got hooked on crack to cope.

After several years, I learned how to survive on the street. I reached out to Le sac à dos, an organization set up to assist Montreal’s homeless. There, you can set up a mailbox where you can have social benefit cheques sent. There are plenty of shelters where you can get a warm meal, too: La maison du père, Old Brewery Mission and Acceuil Bonneau, among others.

You say you can eat six times a day if you know where to go?

Yeah, but unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know about these places—and even worse, some people know, but are too shy to reach out for help. I know this first-hand.

At first, I resorted to eating out of garbage cans because I was too ashamed to go to a shelter. After a while on the street, I became closed off, and the shame is accompanied by fear and paranoia.

Cause when you sleep on the street, you’re always checking your things. You’re worried about being beaten or stabbed by someone trying to rob you. I only ever had a toonie on me—I buried all of my money in the park to be safe.

Living like this takes its toll. Over the 14 years I spent on the street, I attempted suicide three times.

But you’ve persevered, and you told me that one day you met someone who changed your life. A social worker from Acceuil Bonneau named Tommy, who told you that with some effort, paperwork and perseverance, you could pull yourself out of the street and into a government-subsidized apartment. This place.

Tommy gave me the papers and showed me all the places I needed to bring them. He was willing to help me, but I had to be willing and ready to help myself.

It took several years, but eventually, I found out that there was this one-room apartment available here near Berri Square. Not long after, I spent the night sleeping under a bridge in the dead of winter, and my hand slipped out of its glove.

I would have hesitated to make the change if my hand was still normal. But the doctors who amputated my fingers asked if I had a place to stay to keep warm—the whole situation woke me up. Now, after a year, I am settled into this new life, spending free time volunteering with organizations like SOS Itinérant, and handing out sandwiches to people living on the streets that I have come to know so well.

If you live the life I once lived, you should know that there’s a way out. I did it, and I believe with all my heart that you can too.

If I go out into the street and reach out to people, maybe they’ll think, ‘I know that he went through the same thing—I can make it out too.’ They just need a helping hand, and it’s my pleasure.

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