A journalism student’s wake-up call: first time reporting about homelessness

… Or how NOT to be a journalist

During reading week, I spent my Wednesday afternoon at the Abri de la Rive-Sud (ARS), an emergency shelter for homeless persons based in Longueuil. To be clear, I wasn’t there as a volunteer, I was there to complete a photojournalism assignment.

At the end of the day, I came out of this experience with two conclusions:

  1. I am not ready to be a “real” journalist.
  2. I am an even worse person than I thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot more than that during my visit. I have met great people and the ARS is an organization worthy of imitation. However, that is not what I am here to talk about.

On March 3, I did everything a professional journalist shouldn’t do.

For starters, I let social anxiety win and wasted way too much time thinking: how do I approach people without being invasive? Do I look like I’m taking myself too seriously? Do I look serious enough? What if I ask dumb questions? What if I do/say/think the wrong thing?

I was so scared of disturbing people that I shied away from asking more questions and ended up cutting corners. I even refrained from recording some interviews because I was afraid of asking people experiencing homelessness if I could put a microphone in their face. Thankfully, I only had to take pictures and gather enough information to write captions, but if I were to produce an extensive piece of journalism on the subject, there would be major holes in my story.

As an example, take Mr. A, who lost his job and his home due to COVID-19. Even though he did not seem to mind giving details about his life prior to the pandemic, I could not gather the courage to ask him: Why him, why now? What happened that made him unable to stay afloat, like many others did thanks to governmental support like the CERB or Employment Insurance?

Should I have pushed for more information?

At the end of the day, I talked to an employee at the ARS who made a comment that really made me regret not asking those questions to Mr. A. I don’t remember the exact words (always record your interviews, kids!), but the person said that, to become homeless — with no previous history — in the specific context of the pandemic, you almost “have to want it.” Referring to the government’s laxity in terms of monetary aid distribution, the employee told me that COVID-19 had actually made some of their clients better off.

“You have to want it” ???

I was so shocked by the comment that I froze. It was the last thing I thought I would hear from a social worker. I think they were able to read the disbelief in my eyebrows because they then took it upon themselves to specify that they were specifically referring to the current situation. At least, that’s what I understood… but instead of making sure that I had well interpreted the comment, I just stared in silence trying to process what had been said.

Whether it is because I didn’t want to be a burden for the employees who had “real” work to do or because I didn’t want to disrespect the few residents who were willing to talk to me, I shot myself in the foot by not digging deep enough for answers. By not addressing those missing pieces of truth, I threw the journalistic mandate in the trash and did not do justice to anyone who agreed to take part in this project.*

And here is another big no-no for all newbie journalists (and I guess people in general): I forgot to set aside any preconceived ideas.

I consider myself very open-minded, but as a person who was brought up in a very sheltered middle-class environment, I was never inclined to talk with people experiencing homelessness beyond the usual brief greetings.

At the ARS, I got to speak with Mr. B, who became homeless in 2014 and has been on and off the streets since then. He told me about his last psychotic episode and how different the situation is in Longueuil compared to Montreal. He was very articulate, perfectly lucid, and completely open when talking about his difficulties with substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Our exchange lasted a bit less than 25 minutes and let me tell you: it was the first normal conversation I have had with a stranger for a very long time. By “normal” I mean that I did not have to pretend to be someone I am not (i.e. a pseudo-reporter, a top student or a person who knows what they are doing). In fact, I was struck by how much Mr. B and I have in common, which ended up making me lose my journalist goggles. Obviously, I am not even close to knowing the same kind of struggles he did, but it only confirmed what I already knew: anyone could end up in this situation.

When I arrived on location, I had my main question ready and had prepared myself for the most plausible answer. Since the pandemic had made a lot of people lose their jobs and become isolated, I thought they would all say that COVID-19 had made the situation worse for people experiencing homelessness.

But my ignorant self had not thought of one thing: the homeless were already isolated. For many of them, nothing has changed. For many of them, things could not get much worse. When talking to Mr. B, I learned that most people in the homeless community did not spend their time worrying about the pandemic.

“An acquaintance of mine once told me that he had taken so many drugs in his life that COVID wouldn’t want to get into his body,” he said.

Under which privileged rock was I living to think that people without homes would experience the pandemic in the same way as everyone else?

In the end, a lot of the things I thought I knew about the issue were proven wrong when I visited the ARS. And all I can do about it is to tell all five people who will check out my not-so-thorough school project.

When I started working on it at the beginning of the semester, my intention was to achieve something truly meaningful. I agree; it was a bit delusional and I might have aimed a bit too high for a first-year student without any relevant experience.

Still, since I have started studying journalism, the same thought keeps lingering in my mind: maybe I am not made for journalism.

In two months, I visited two homeless outreach organizations and have been asked twice if I was a new volunteer or a recently employed social worker. Both times when I answered “no,” I was overwhelmed by the same feeling: guilt.  

If I cannot become a successful journalist, will I keep feeling bad for reporting on issues that I don’t have any real power to eradicate? If I wanted to change the world so much, shouldn’t I seek to actively help others instead of writing about things that I wish would change?

Putting that little existential crisis aside, I have to say that I am not ready to give up on journalism just yet. After all, I’ve only been studying in journalism for six months. Maybe this time I was not as good as professional journalist Christopher Curtis who’s been covering homelessnessness consistently for years, but facing these kinds of challenges so early in my student career only motivates me to do better. To be honest, I don’t think I will ever be able to grow into this groundbreaking investigative journalist I had envisioned myself becoming. But that doesn’t mean I should stop trying.

*This is why I decided not to mention my sources’ real names. They have signed a waiver regarding a specific assignment, but they were not informed that their story would be repurposed in this context. This article is about my own mistakes and “journey,” and until I am able to reach out to the persons involved, names will not be disclosed.


Feature photo by Christine Beaudoin

Being a psychologist: not always a walk in the park… or is it?

Forget about lying down on a couch; it is time for walk-and-talk therapy

“I don’t have time for therapy.”

I wish I were able to convince myself otherwise. Actually, I wish everyone was able to make time for therapy.

I stopped seeing my psychologist five years ago, thinking I couldn’t afford to spend an hour of my time (and $100 of my mother’s salary) every week just to sit on a couch and complain about my life. It was too late when I realized that I should have kept going, but as someone who later sought and received urgent professional help, I can safely say that therapy is absolutely worth your time and money.

I am doing way better now (thank you for asking) but I still struggle with the idea of going back to therapy. I must admit that I have always had a teeny-tiny negative bias towards it, and to be quite honest, I am broke and busier than ever.

But I recently learned something that almost convinced me to go back …

Sticking to online therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic was not enough for two private psychologists from the Centre de Psychologie Behaviorale (CPB) in Ahuntsic. That is why they started offering outdoor consultations as an alternative.

One of those two psychologists, Serge Drolet, has been working at CPB for 30 years.

On April 17, 2020, the Quebec government issued an official document instructing mental health service providers to limit their in-person activities and opt for teleconsultation whenever possible. At the time, all of CPB’s operations had already shifted online.

Since March 2020, about 25 per cent of Drolet’s clients have consequently abandoned therapy because they were not interested in Zoom consultations.

“Some very good patients left, and sadly, I don’t know what they became,” Drolet explained.

This inspired him to experiment with “walk-and-talk therapy” instead.  Since June, about 15 per cent of Drolet’s patients have chosen to bring their therapy sessions outdoors.

During the winter, the Marcelin-Wilson park and the small woods near the clinic are often deserted. On March 2, it might have been -17 C outside, but the most courageous of Drolet’s patients were able to enjoy the calm and tranquility.

However, since the office is surrounded by many other primary care services like a drugstore, a radiology centre, and a dialysis clinic, there is a lot of traffic on the sidewalks despite the centre being located in a quiet neighbourhood.

“Stuff happens when we find ourselves in these kinds of situations,” Drolet said. “[A patient and I] were walking and an old man tried to shove us aside because we were not walking fast enough for him. There was a lesson of self-assertion management, and that’s great because [this patient] is a person who, when alone, is submissive when it comes to confrontations. I gave this man a piece of my mind — while remaining professional, of course — and I was glad that she [the patient] could see that I, myself, do [what I usually advise her to do].”

According to Drolet, this new type of consultation also adds a dynamic component to the therapy.

“There’s a small wood not too far away and there are three directions we can take,” Drolet said. “On the right, we can see perfectly well; on the left there are a couple of young people that seem rough; and in the middle, it’s the woods. I don’t decide which way to go. You choose where we go. Just the fact that the person makes decisions like that during the session, somewhere along the way, it helps them make decisions in life,” Drolet said.

Being stuck alone with ourselves can be challenging, and many people’s mental health problems were exacerbated because of the pandemic. However, Drolet noticed that his patients had become more invested in their therapy; they have more free time to self-examine and to reflect on their patterns. Moreover, now that psychologists are being exposed to the same worries and deprivations as their patients, they can now empathize rather than sympathize with them. In fact, Drolet said that being on an equal footing with his clients in such a way has allowed him to help them better.

In the end, with all of COVID’s difficulties, it has also opened the door for new possibilities for how mental health service providers can treat their patients. Now that many people have more free time to focus on themselves and that it somewhat became easier to find a psychologist we can relate to, combining therapy to the health benefits of getting more fresh air gives us one more reason to consider going to therapy.


 Photo by Christine Beaudoin

Arts Uncategorized

Le théâtre Québécois is now online

Three weeks ago, I went to see a play. And by “went”, I mean that I went home, walked upstairs … and watched a live performance through my computer screen

In August 2020, the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) announced that their fall 2020 program would be available online to a ticketed audience. Initially, it had also planned to welcome spectators at a reduced capacity, in compliance with the government’s health recommendations. However, now that Montreal has re-entered the red zone, going out to the theatre is no longer an option.

Times are extremely hard for the local artistic community. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, cultural stakeholders have had no choice but to adapt quickly to this new reality. And that’s when modern technologies came into play no pun intended.

During the pandemic, digital platforms and online streaming services allowed artists to keep sharing their passion virtually. This year, viewers and consumers of art were gifted with many online film festivals and concerts. The TNM decided to follow this trend by streaming five plays and live performances for the season.

But livestreaming theatre comes with its own unique challenges. It is quite easy for the film industry to transfer everything online: Netflix does it all the time, and movies are made to be watched through a screen. In contrast, plays are made to be seen in person. Some could argue that livestreamed theatre makes the “real” theatre lose its essence. Moreover, it also makes viewing difficult for senior spectators (the TNM’s main audience) who may be less familiar with computers.

Suzanne Lebrun, 90, has been a TNM subscriber since the 1980s. When she tried to log in on the platform for the first play of the season – Zebrina. Une pièce à conviction – everything went smoothly… up until the moment the video started lagging. Before the play had even started.

She had been able to get to the correct webpage thanks to her niece, who stayed on the phone with Lebrun to help her adjust the image and sound settings. They hung up just before the beginning of the performance, and that’s when Lebrun noticed that something was wrong.

“Everything was pitch-black. I could see the stage and a moving shadow, but I had no sound, and there was this circle that kept coming back again and again,” said Lebrun.

The circle she is referring to is the loading icon. At the time, she didn’t know what it was, and had no idea that a connection problem was the cause of these technical difficulties. She tried refreshing the page multiple times and had to navigate through the website by herself to get back to the play. After an hour and a half of failed attempts, she completely gave up.

The worst part of this story? Lebrun wasn’t able to access the page in the days that followed because the link was good for one use only. The performance was live, and just like “in real life,” she couldn’t go back to see the play for a second time for free.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t regret paying for the $65 dollar livestream subscription (for five shows). Even though she is extremely disappointed with her first experience, she believes it is important to encourage the artists any way she can. But she admitted that she still missed going to the TNM: “It’s not the same. My usual seat is right in the front, it’s like I’m part of the play. I can see them [the actors] sweat, cry and spit… Once, there was even a sword that flew all the way to our row, at the bottom of the stage!” she said.

For Marielle Lussier, 65, the experience was enjoyable. She says she was able to watch the play in the comfort of her house for a fairly low price, and that she is happy that she didn’t have to deal with Montreal parking.

“Sure, the visual and sound effects are not as amplified, but in the light of the specific circumstances, I prefer it this way [online] than no way,” said Lussier. Still, she would’ve gone to the theatre if she had had the option.

Theatre regulars and enthusiasts seem to think unanimously that something is missing with online plays. A screen is a wall between the public and the performers: the emotions and the intentions can be lost in translation. And frankly, it is way harder to feel the theatrical spirit when you are vegging out in your pyjamas in front of your 27-inch TV. Despite all of this, this could be a great opportunity for theatre companies to reach a new audience since the easier and cheaper access could appeal to the younger generations.

As J. Kelly Nestruck tweeted: “Rehearsals and digital capture are still permitted during the 28 days [partial lockdown].” The TNM will be moving forward with its online programming.

Do you like orchestral music or classic literature? Whether you are a French speaker or a French learner, you should go check it out!

Simply Scientific: What do we know about Déjà vu?

Have you not read this article before? Pretty sure you haven’t. You might just be experiencing déjà vu.

Ever had a conversation,

That you realize you’ve had before,

Isn’t it strange?

Have you ever talked to someone,

And you feel you know what’s coming next?

It feels prearranged. – Iron Maiden

Despite scientists’ attempts to find an explanation for déjà vu, they haven’t yet reached a conclusion. For now, hypotheses are all we have. But, a few years ago, the scientific community started targeting their research around the most plausible cause: memory.

In 400 AD, philosopher St. Augustine was already wondering about this phenomenon, however, the expression “déjà vu” was first introduced and popularized by philosopher and medium Émile Boirac in 1876. Before science got involved in the topic, people would link déjà vu to premonitory dreams and even reincarnation.

From a scientific perspective, a potential cause of déjà vu has been researched in studies of epilepsy. According to a 2012 report published in the medical journal Neuropsychologia, there is a strong correlation between déjà vu and the seizures that occur to those who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). TLE is a type of epilepsy that affects the hippocampus of the brain, which is crucial for learning and memory. Experts then suggested that déjà vu, just like a seizure, could be prompted by a local neurological dysfunction in which neurons happen to send signals at random, giving us a feeling of familiarity. Nevertheless, it is still uncertain whether déjà vu could be explained by physiological similarities between a healthy brain and the brain of a patient with epilepsy, as mentioned in an article of Cortex journal.

Another possible explanation, explored in 2012 by Colorado State University psychology professor Anne M. Cleary, is that our brain could be associating a present situation with the memory of an experience that we cannot consciously recall. To test this theory, Cleary put 74 participants in a static virtual reality (VR) simulation “to demonstrate that an identical spatial layout to a previously viewed but unrecalled scene increases the likelihood of reported déjà vu for an otherwise novel scene.” Even though this theory is now largely accepted, a question remained: what is the relation between déjà vu and the feeling of premonition?

In 2018, Cleary and her collaborator Alexander B. Claxton conducted a similar experiment, but this time, with an animated VR simulation. They suggested that déjà vu could be an illusion of prediction. The study showed that many participants often thought they knew what would happen next based on what they had previously seen while being unable to predict an outcome. Therefore, déjà vu seemed to have something to do with thinking about the future, but not much to do with premonitions, though the study “[has] not ruled out the possibility that memory-driven déjà vu can, in other situations, drive actual predictive ability.”

Ever had a conversation that you realize you’ve had before? Whether you think it’s a glitch in the matrix or a special ability, the lack of knowledge surrounding the mysteries of the brain makes it difficult to come up with a thorough answer regarding the causes of déjà vu. Who knows, maybe 60 to 70 per cent of us really are psychics. It feels prearranged. Isn’t it strange?


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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