We need to address the real causes of homelessness in Montreal

Thousands of unhoused people are victims of a broken system and especially vulnerable as winter arrives, yet little thought or empathy is given to the issue. 

As the streets get colder, it becomes even more urgent to address the homelessness crisis in Montreal. Temperature drops are life-threatening to this vulnerable population and exacerbate their already harsh living conditions. It’s time to talk more in depth about homelessness and its causes.  

According to the CBC, the population of unhoused people* in Quebec doubled between 2018 and 2022—totalling nearly 10,000, half of whom are in Montreal. I’ve noticed that casual discourse around homelessness is often damaging and fails to address deeper issues. I have heard the topic be approached with disgust or contempt toward unhoused people, sometimes accompanied with demeaning jokes and comments. This contempt should instead be directed toward the systems that cause homelessness and the governments that do little to address the issue. 

The lack of affordable housing and subsequent housing crisis is just one cause of homelessness. Traumatic events, extreme poverty, domestic abuse and discrimination can all play a role. Those who struggle with sickness and mental illness are more susceptible to homelessness. Systemic and personal issues create dire situations, especially for marginalized groups.

In Montreal, Indigenous people are 27 times more likely to suffer from homelessness than other demographic groups, according to a recent count. The Inuit community is particularly affected, making up 25 per cent of unhoused Indigenous people. This is the result of systemic racism, inter-generational trauma, and lack of services for those who need them most—but most of all, it is a direct example of the ongoing effects of settler colonialism.  

It is essential to view homelessness through this lens and realize that unhoused people are victims of an oppressive system. We must be particularly mindful of this fact and put pressure on governments to establish better solutions. 

The city’s relationship with homelessness is a complicated one. On numerous occasions, Mayor Valérie Plante has called on the provincial government to provide more funding and work with the city to make a long-term plan. “[W]hat I’m looking for is a bigger conversation with the entire ecosystem,” Plante said to The Montreal Gazette in June, “…and that includes the provincial government and the Ministry of Health and Social Services, because they are in charge of homelessness, mental health and drug use, because often these things are connected.” 

In early November, Social Services Minister Lionel Carmant announced that the Quebec government will grant nearly $10 million toward increasing space in shelters and establishing emergency services as the cold approaches. While this is a positive and essential step, it is not enough.

Broad reform is needed. Alberta advocates for a “Housing First” approach, which aims to break the cycle by setting up unhoused Albertans in permanent housing and providing them with ongoing support. This support would aim to address mental health, employment, and addiction. Montreal should take a similar approach with a decolonial focus, and move away from emergency solutions.

If you want to help, it’s impactful to volunteer and donate when possible. But first of all, we must flip the narrative around homelessness. Mocking and pejorative comments are dehumanizing, and it’s essential to consider the systemic issues at play. The simplest way to help is by speaking mindfully about unhoused people and considering the causes and effects of homelessness. 

*A note on vocabulary: the term “unhoused” is growing in usage due to the sometimes derogatory connotations of the word “homeless,” and to emphasize that unhoused people may have outdoor or community spaces they call home. In this article, I switch between the two terms, but use “unhoused” when referring to the people themselves for this reason.


After two years of being online, the yearly Nuit des sans-abri de Montréal is back

The Nuit des sans-abri comes back after two years of pandemic to hold a vigil to support people experiencing homelessness and raise awareness about the difficulties of living on the street

After gathering for speeches at Phillips Square, community organizers and participants marched to Place Émilie-Gamelin for the 33rd annual Nuit des sans-abri. There, organizers met for a solidarity vigil where people experiencing homelessness could gather around fires and have food and drinks with those present. People played music and made art. Activists put up tents to raise awareness on the various issues affecting the homeless population. 

La Nuit des sans-abri was started in 1989 by several community organizations and spread to various cities across Quebec. Since then, it is held each fall to raise awareness about the difficulties encountered by people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and social disaffiliation. The number of people in this situation in Montreal and throughout Quebec has been on the rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to community organizers.  

Marianne Daigle, a community organizer for the Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM) and co-organizer of the Nuit des sans-abri, explained that this year’s event was the first time since the start of the pandemic that it  was held in-person, which the organizers hope let people feel more connected. 

“After two years of the pandemic, it seemed essential to us to have this gathering, which is a mobilizing moment of awareness for civil society,” said Daigle. “The pandemic brought a sense of solidarity, of sharing and now that the pandemic has calmed down we have many more people in precarious situations or who were on the line and that the pandemic has pushed over the line.”

Daigle explained that there is a lack of adapted services for homeless people in Montreal.

“We need to diversify the actions and the type of resources,” said Daigle. “Long-term, temporary and emergency housing, we need all of these because homelessness has a thousand different faces.”

Daigle added that, on top of the labour shortage, community organizations also lack the necessary funding to meet the demand for their services. She explained that the current social and political climate are pushing more and more people out on the streets.

“Each homeless person has an individual journey but there are systemic issues,” explained Daigle. “The housing crisis has added a lot, even the increase of the cost of living that affects us all.” 

Jacques Brochu, an artist who has experienced homelessness, was present to showcase his work. Brochu discussed his experiences using art therapy, which he discovered through the harm reduction community organization, Dopamine, in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Currently in a difficult housing situation, Brochu hopes to soon live in a housing co-operative and eventually become an art therapist. 

Brochu and other people present were quick to denounce the “not in my backyard” effect, from residents opposed to having homeless shelters built in their neighborhoods, ultimately stigmatizing people experiencing homelessness.. Participants also mentioned a lack of political policy and exposure visibility towards the displaced. 

“The most difficult thing is the lack of commitment of the political class,” said Brochu, regarding the recent provincial election. “Politicians don’t want to actually make decisions,” said Brochu.


We are the voice of the people

A Montreal homeless shelter coordinator shares his experience working during the peak of the Omicron wave.

When John Tessier first visited The Open Door seven years ago, he was a drug addict searching for a sense of direction. What he didn’t realize was how much the homeless shelter would change his life, or that he would end up serving the community he once was part of.

Tessier began volunteering for The Open Door seven years ago. “We have a reputation of doing things a little differently,” said Tessier, the centre’s coordinator. “We build a relationship with the people that we serve.”

The Open Door is a homeless shelter and drop-in centre located in downtown Montreal, Quebec for low-income individuals. The shelter also offers various other services like counselling, referrals to mental health professionals, and drug addiction counselors.

Walking up Park Ave, where The Open Door is located, you would never think there is a homeless shelter right in front of you. The shelter is in the basement of a church — not easily spotted by the naked eye.

When someone first arrives at The Open Door, they must go down two flights of stairs until they are eventually greeted by volunteers at the front desk. 

Afterwards, the volunteers accompany the clients to either a bed, the kitchen area to get something to eat, or a shower. There are many showering stations around the shelter providing access to shampoo, soap, and other personal hygiene products. 

Before becoming the centre’s coordinator, Tessier was an Open Door client. “I was a drug addict and I needed services as well,” he said.

“After I allowed myself to get straightened out, I wanted to give back. I started to volunteer, and a job opened up.”

Tessier’s day-to-day activities at the shelter are always different. “There is no standard day, I coordinate the entire centre. With the intervention team, we might be accompanying people to court,” Tessier explained. “Right now, one of our long-time users is in the hospital at the rehab centre. One of our team leaders is there with her, helping her get set-up and figure out what her next steps are.”

The pandemic shifted the usual routine at the shelter, as The Open Door couldn’t accommodate as many people as usual. With the tighter living quarters at the shelter, sanitary measures became of utmost importance. The volunteers and staff were equipped with gear such as N95 masks, goggles, gloves, and more. 

The Omicron wave has made Tessier more aware of the issues in this community. In particular, the challenges of how Montreal’s shelters are at over-capacity.  He recalled the shelter experiencing waves of Omicron infections during the first few weeks of January 2022. This was a very difficult time, even with the isolation period only being five days for essential workers who caught the virus.

Despite the challenges, Tessier said that The Open Door staff remain resilient. When the Omicron wave hit the shelter, everyone still came to work, even when the virus seemed to be getting worse by the minute. “I commend the volunteers who were still coming in here,” said Tessier.

“This Omicron wave hit us, and a lot of places had to reduce their capacity,” said Tessier. 

On Jan. 10, 2022, CTV news published an article about a 74-year old homeless man who died in the freezing cold. The news of this tragic death sparked up a lot of debate among Montrealers. “It’s so sad and heartbreaking,” said Tessier in response to the news.

“This is ridiculous and tragic that this happened,” said James Hughes, the president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission.  “In many ways it shouldn’t be surprising, but it is still shocking.”

Hughes explained that the Old Brewery Mission – one of the largest resources for homeless people in Quebec – experienced a tough January this year. Almost reaching full capacity, the shelter has been unable to accommodate as many as they would have liked. In order to do so, Hughes and his team had to turn to large soccer stadiums. During the period of Jan. 13 to Feb. 6, 2022, the Old Brewery Mission was set up at the State de soccer de Montréal. Since then they have been able to stabilize.

A lot of people that come to the Old Brewery Mission only seek their services and do not want to stay overnight, explained Hughes. “A lot of people just say no, I don’t want to stay here for a long time, I am just hungry and I want to warm up.”  

“We expect [the unhoused people] to work with a counsellor and work on a housing plan,” said Hughes. “We’re trying to reduce homelessness above everything else.”

Creating long-term housing plans is one of the main goals that The Open Door shelter works towards with their clients. 

“We have an Inuit specific housing program. However, we only have 16 spots in that program,” said Tessier. As a result, there is a long waiting list. 

Projet Logement Montréal (PLM), a housing program that seeks to help house homeless people get apartments, recently made an offer to The Open Door in January 2022 to help support their clients with a more long-term housing plan. According to Tessier, the housing program offered The Open Door 25 spots for clients to join their program, so they could live in available apartments.

However, PLM is not a long-term housing solution. It helps unhoused people for up to three months, with their rent and utilities taken care of during that time. Afterwards, they are on their own. 

“There is not enough funding to put people into long-term housing, and that is the main issue,” said Tessier.  “If we had around 50 spots with the Inuit housing program that would be great, but since we don’t the waiting list gets long.” 

According to Tessier, implementing a transitional house could be a potential solution. In the transitional housing, the unhoused people would have continuous support from the intervention workers until they have a stable living situation. 

“A lot of the centres in the city feel institutionalized and that’s why people won’t go to them,” said Tessier. Most people that come through the shelter do not want to feel forced to adhere to a certain set of regulations. “They do not want to feel like they are in a jail or a hospital.” 

Due to the various services that The Open Door offers, such as food and clothing, laundry services, shelter during the day, counselling, and referrals to professional mental health and drug addiction, more people tend to want more of those services. 

For Shawn MacIsaac, a client and volunteer at The Open Door, the shelter offers him options that he has not seen at others. “I was referred to The Open Door by a friend of mine, who was a full-time volunteer, and he told me that they offered only vegetarian meals, which was great for me because I am a vegetarian,” said MacIsaac. 

The Open Door is staying afloat thanks to the volunteers who work there and the people in the Montreal community who make generous donations.

When Victoria Kalisky, a political science student at McGill University, first read the headline about the death of a homeless man outside in the cold, she was motivated to start a GoFundMe campaign. Kalisky wanted to raise money to help homeless people in Montreal gain better access  to winter coats. Since the beginning of January 2022, Kalisky has managed to donate over 150 winter jackets to The Open Door. 

The shelter receives winter jackets that are lightly worn and second-hand, according to Tessier. However, receiving new, much-needed winter gear hits differently.  

“It is just a whole different feeling when we give someone something brand new with the tags still on it,” said Tessier. “The smiles that we see when we are able to give people that are amazing.”

“The secret to this type of work is building up trust and treating people as if they are family. We haven’t lost many workers here because when you walk away from this place, it’s like you are walking away from people you truly care about,” said Tessier.

Daphnée Dunleavy has worked as an intervention worker at the Open Door since August 2021. Central to their role, intervention workers provide guidance and support to the people inside the shelter. “I find it’s a really important experience because you are dealing with people who basically have nothing.”

At The Open Door, Dunleavy can be seen helping people around from her spot at the front desk. Clients come to her with their questions. 

As Dunleavy works the front desk, MacIsaac volunteers at the breakfast service shift in the kitchen. 

“I start at six in the morning, with the breakfast service, like today I made the oatmeal that we are serving,” MacIsaac explained.  

Part of Dunleavy’s motivations for working at the shelter are to combat dehumanizing stereotypes of homeless people. When someone starts working at The Open Door, they begin to understand what kind of a community exists at the shelter, she explained. “Everyone knows each other, it’s really amazing.” 

Hughes said that the best way to help one another during challenging times is by getting together in big groups, donating clothes, and starting food drives.

“When you do see a homeless person, just go out and say, ‘Hey how are you doing today?’” said Hughes. “Acknowledge them, they are humans above everything else.”

With spring around the corner, homelessness is still an ongoing issue. 

“Homelessness doesn’t start in December and end in March,” said Hughes. “We need innovative solutions all the time.”

Photo by James Fay


Life of L’Ange

From a man who once lived on the streets to one who now gives back to his community in any way he can, Gaëtan Ouellet’s life inspires him to support those in need

Trigger Warning: The following includes mentions of suicide, addiction, and mental illness.

A life of ups and downs best describes a man who, through the toughest of hardships, continues to keep his head above water. Someone who strives to be a positive influence to those around him who are struggling, as he once was. From being someone who got offered a helping hand when he needed it most to now being that person who lends a hand, Gaëtan Ouellet remains a man of perseverance and humility.

Ouellet is well known in the Old Port of Montreal, and more specifically known by the name “Ange.” His nickname grew out of his previous acts of generosity in parking lots. Beginning in the mid ‘90s — back when parking meters could be filled at individual machines set up for each spot —  Ouellet would take pleasure in filling them out for people before parking security showed up to issue them a ticket. When car owners noticed Ouellet saving them from a ticket, they would ask for his name.

“I’m just a guardian angel looking out for people. They call me Gaë-tange,” he would reply.

Those who discovered who their parking meter angel was often thanked him by offering small gestures, such as meals, money, or cigarettes.

People’s small offerings were not the motivators behind his actions. Although people’s kindness meant the world to him, all he expected was a simple “thank you.” Simply put, Ouellet enjoys helping others, and that’s that.

Growing up in Gaspésie on the east coast of Quebec, Ouellet had a rural upbringing. At the age of six, his father moved their family to Montreal after having trouble finding work in their area and he has been here ever since.

Ouellet’s early adult life began to take off when he took a welding course. He had an interest in the technique behind the craft and had studied it at a trade school in Saint-Henri. He ended up earning a steady income for five years as a welder and then moved on, working at Québecor binding magazines for 23 years. Things were looking up for Ouellet, until everything suddenly came crumbling down.

Looking back, the year 1994 marks a difficult time in Ouellet’s life. In the span of one week, he had lost his job due to layoffs and came home to find his roommate’s body —who was also a childhood friend of 32 years — hanging in their apartment. This line of horrific events led Ouellet into a dark cycle of drinking and heavy drug consumption of heroin and cocaine. Four months after being taken in by his family and friends as a temporary solution, Ouellet found himself alone, homeless, and on the streets of the Old Port of Montreal.

“Living on the street, you need a vice to forget you’re living on the street,” said Ouellet.

The homeless community of Montreal was never a stranger to Ouellet. Growing up, he would spend most of his free time around the Old Port. Ironically, years before finding himself homeless, Ouellet came to know an elderly homeless man whose health was in poor condition. He recalls the man being concerned about what would happen to his physical spot on the street once he was gone. Ouellet remembers the man sharing that if ever Ouellet was to be in tough times, his spot would become available soon as the man knew he wouldn’t be here much longer.

The elderly man’s spot soon became Ouellet’s first home on the streets of Montreal.

“It’s funny how life works,” said Ouellet. “It makes you realize we are not that different from one another.”

No one is prepared for the moment when they realize that bartering for their next meal is one of their only options for food. They don’t expect to find themselves desperately picking through ashtrays on the city sidewalk in hopes of finding a cigarette that isn’t fully smoked. Living on the streets, Ouellet was faced with this hard-hitting reality. For nine years, he was begging strangers to get by.

It’s often easier to think of the hardships that we face in life as temporary situations. Ones that won’t last long. For Ouellet, along with many others who find themselves in a similar situation, finding their next meal or having to endure weather of all kinds, lasted longer than he would have liked.

His days under the influence of heavy drugs and alcohol were spent begging for change at traffic lights and slurring words at passersby. The reaction on people’s faces was telling. They were not willing to help someone in an intoxicated state. Instead, he realized that they would be more willing to give to someone who was looking to help themselves. He knew his behaviour was not an effective way to appeal to people’s sympathy and generosity.

Ouellet takes out the garbage for a Vieux Montreal business, Montreal, Quebec, October 4, 2021. In exchange for services such as this one, “l’Ange du Vieux Montreal” is fed. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

Over the years, Ouellet learned that if this was to be his lifestyle for the time being, he had to make some changes in order to survive. Once he was clean and no longer being consumed by his vices, Ouellet decided to offer his free time to performing small tasks which became a new way to meet his needs of meals and clothing.

Gaëtan Ouellet, also known as “l’Ange du Vieux Montreal”, cleans up dust and spider webs from a restaurant’s window, Montreal, Quebec, October 4, 2021. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

On an average day, Ouellet can be found spending the better part of his time lending people a helping hand on Saint-Paul St. in Montreal’s Old Port. From brooming store fronts, washing windows, to shoveling walkways during the winter months, Ouellet’s acts of generosity are done with nothing asked in return.

From 2007 onwards, Ouellet began performing odd jobs for local businesses. Every now and then, he brings in garbage bins and occasionally fills in for dishwasher duty. While Ouellet may not be employed by anyone in particular, the 12 clients that he helps out from time to time provide him with food and clothing in exchange for his services.

Ouellet, Old Montreal’s “Angel”, takes out recycling bags from an Old Montreal alleyway, October 4, 2021. Some mornings, Gaetan wakes up early to do his rounds of trash removal in the area. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

Living as a homeless person, he came into contact with several influential people, including celebrities such as Carlos Santana, by chance, through mutual friends. Judges, lawyers and restaurant owners like Chuck Hughes are also acquaintances Ouellet has formed bonds with. Ouellet’s down-to-earth and friendly personality even got him invited out to lunch by judges who were looking for company during their lunch break. He noticed his presence on the street made a difference. On the odd day when he didn’t follow his usual routine, familiar faces would ask him why they had missed him and where he had been.

Notably, 2021 marks 19 years since Ouellet got sober. He attributes his success in getting clean to a good friend, now a lawyer, who he met while living on the streets. When he could no longer stand to see him in this state, Ouellet’s newfound friend called an ambulance so he could get admitted to the hospital for help; the first step taken on the road to recovery.

This lawyer friend paid for Ouellet’s four month stay at the Louis-H. Lafontaine psychiatric hospital, which got Ouellet clean and provided medication for his health issues.

It is also thanks to this lawyer friend that he now has a government-subsidized apartment to come home to, as well as a place to offer others to stay if they need a roof over their head and a good night’s rest.

Despite no longer living on the streets, Ouellet still gets up everyday to support those within his community, whether they be homeless, business owners, or just people passing by.

The sun rises over Old Montreal, the place Ouellet, “Angel”, calls home, October 4, 2021. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

In the fall of 2020, Ouellet began devoting his free time to residents of the Notre-Dame Street camping site because of the large volume of people who continued to struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the help of volunteers, he aided in distributing donated goods, such as clothes and food. Eventually, they managed to find long-term homes for 16 people at the campsite, providing them with an affordable rented space when sharing the cost amongst groups of two.

Ouellet recently got contacted on Sept. 19 by the Old Brewery Mission who provide services to the homeless in Montreal. He was asked to help them out given how he’s familiar with the community in need and could make them feel more comfortable in accepting the help. He went out to the corner of Berri and Sainte-Catherine St. to help homeless citizens in the area. The team focused on preparations for upcoming weather changes, so heavier jackets and boots were distributed in addition to access to a barber and foot care services for those in need.

As someone who once lived that reality, Ouellet knows first hand the needs of people living on the street. Access to foot care and acceptable personal hygiene resources are as necessary as warm clothes and appropriate footwear. It’s this type of knowledge that Ouellet feels thankful to have when lending a helping hand to those in need.

Ouellet places a mat in front of Tommy’s cafe for people to sit on in Old Montreal, Quebec, October 4, 2021. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

Ouellet is the proud father of three daughters. While they have been in and out of his life during his time on the streets, his bond with them has grown now that he is clean. He enjoys the time with his six grandchildren who brighten up his days. He feels fortunate to have gotten sober. He says that he now feels like he can fully appreciate and enjoy the years ahead with his family. What does the future have in store for his retirement years? Ouellet doesn’t have a set plan just yet.

Ouellet says that he is happy where he is now and is grateful for the opportunity to help others. Lending a helping hand to those he sees sleeping on park benches for nights at a time fulfills him with a sense of gratitude.

Life has its ups and downs for every individual in any community. Some people’s challenges may be more visible than others. Kindness is universal and can go a long way in impacting how someone’s story plays out. In rising above hardships, we have the ability to look beyond those less than perfect times in our lives with compassion. It is that compassion that allows us to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Ouellet reminds us that everyone has a story and, more importantly, that everyone is human.

“Are we really that different? I look at the human side of every person that I meet whether they be officials such as police officers, judges or just humans that need support. They are all the same in my eyes, I help everyone in good faith,” said Ouellet.


Visuals by Christine Beaudoin


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


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.


Reducing homelessness in Montreal

We often see them on the metros, street corners and in alleyways. We usually ignore them to avoid guilt and perhaps uncomfortable conversations. According to a 2015 study commissioned by Mayor Denis Coderre’s administration, there are 3,016 homeless people in Montreal. Those are the same homeless people we see every day and, unfortunately, often ignore.

In 2014, city workers installed “anti-loitering” spikes that were meant to deter people from sitting in certain areas. They were removed after receiving backlash from Coderre, as he called the spikes “anti-homeless,” since many homeless people often sleep near those areas. The same mayor is now heavily focusing on homelessness in Montreal for his municipal election campaign. According to the Montreal Gazette, Coderre promised to sleep on the city’s streets to show he has the homeless in mind. And, more importantly, he is now considering implementing wet shelters in Montreal. Wet shelters allow homeless alcoholics to consume alcohol under supervision, with the goal of gradually lowering their dependence on the substance.

The Toronto Star reported such shelters already exist in Toronto and Ottawa, and work well in those cities. The wet shelters would be similar to safe injecting sites, where addicts can reduce harm when using substances. Along with the wet shelters, Coderre also has new initiatives to reduce homelessness in Montreal, according to CTV News. These include a second census of Montreal’s homeless population, 400 more spaces in rooming houses, and services aimed at youth, the LGBTQ+ community, women and Indigenous communities.

We at The Concordian think it’s great that Coderre wants to address homelessness in Montreal, and we hope his initiatives are carried out. It’s promising to see that he’s interested in improving the conditions for homeless people, but we hope he doesn’t get distracted by theatrics.

It’s also important to realize that, although Montreal’s mayor is now focusing on homelessness in the city, other community members have been doing so for a while—and have affected real change. Toe2Toe, for example, is a non-profit organization run by Chris Costello, a Montrealer. The initiative focuses on giving homeless people proper footwear, namely socks—a piece of clothing that’s often overlooked. According to their website, since 2014, the organization “has raised thousands of dollars and collected more than 15,000 pairs of socks for the homeless.” The organization also speaks to various community groups in order to raise awareness about homelessness and the importance of proper footwear.

Another community member, Gilles Chiasson, started a knitting group that aims to let homeless people know they aren’t ignored by the Montreal community. Chiasson has experienced homelessness, according to the Montreal Gazette, and he said he hopes to protect homeless people from cold weather with sweaters, leg warmers and hats. However, the knitting group’s main goal is to form a sense of connection between homeless people and the rest of the community. In the same article, Chiasson explained that homeless people often don’t feel connected to their families or community. He said he believes that if a homeless person receives something that was hand-knitted for them, it will make them feel like someone is attempting to connect with them, and that someone cares.

There was also the recent launch of the online tool 2000Solutions that illustrates data and information about homeless people in Montreal. The organization also aims to house 2,000 homeless people by the year 2020, and they want to prove it is possible to change a homeless person’s life.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that there have been efforts by community members in past years to eradicate homelessness, or at least raise awareness. Groups like Toe2Toe, Chiasson’s knitting group and 2000Solutions are just some of the ways Montrealers have tried to help fellow Montrealers. We at The Concordian strongly hope Coderre, if re-elected, follows through with his initiatives to improve the conditions of homelessness in our city.

We hope he sticks to his promises. A determined mayor can play a big role in helping us come together and help our fellow community members. And more importantly, we hope this editorial has made you wonder what more you can do to help the homeless.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin 

Student Life

Comme Toi: A brand for all to rock

 Two Montreal students started a fashion project to help the city’s homeless

The fashion industry can be an elitist industry. But 23-year-old Concordia student Riaz Oozeer and 24-year-old McGill student Shelbie Huard are attempting to break that stereotype with their apparel project, Comme Toi.

Comme Toi is a fashion line that sells minimalist T-shirts and toques. For every piece someone buys from Comme Toi, the brand sets another one aside to be given to a homeless person in Montreal.

The fashion-humanitarian project is only a few months old, but the small team of two has already donated over 80 pieces of apparel to the city’s homeless community. Oozeer, a second-year liberal arts student, was inspired to start this project when he began noticing just how many homeless people inhabit the city’s streets. Upon walking the same streets daily, he observed that the streets were home for many.

The project’s name directly translates to “like you,” and encapsulates the heart and mission of Comme Toi—the belief that all people are equal and should therefore be treated as such, according to the co-founders.

Oozeer said he encourages customers to go hand out the second item themselves. Huard believes this exchange is an important part of the process for customers.

“I think that is really meaningful, just having that interaction,” said Huard, who is an anthropology and Hispanic studies student.

According to Oozeer, about half of Comme Toi’s customers have personally handed out the second item. Oozeer and Huard explained that many customers are aware that homelessness is an issue, but many choose not to interact with it.

“I think [the homeless] are painted in a negative [light] a lot,” said Huard.  “But that’s not the reality.”

Oozeer said he tells customers who are about to give away a T-shirt, “Don’t be stressed. It’s someone like you.”

The idea behind the brand is that the act of giving away an article of clothing instigates an interaction with someone living on the streets and, according to the co-founders, the reaction on both ends has been positive every time.

According to the co-founders, Comme Toi’s main goal is to unite people through fashion. “Fashion has big authority over people,” said Oozeer. Comme Toi seeks to bridge the emotional and physical gap between the homeless and the general public.

“That’s something I find really interesting [about the project],” said Huard.  “Because fashion is usually something that separates people but we use it in a different way.”

The duo said they have big ideas for the brand—they want to see their project reach out to more marginalized groups, such as the city’s refugees.

For Oozeer, Comme Toi is a small step towards fixing one of the world’s biggest issues. “We’re thinking of going to the moon because we’re destroying everything on our planet. What are we going to do there? Destroy it again and keep going? No, you’ve got to fix [things] here,” said Oozeer, with passion and conviction in his voice.

You can become part of the movement by donating to Comme Toi or by buying a product at their website.

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