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