'They have nowhere to go': Cabot Square's Indigenous navigator seeks more help for area's homeless
As many as 14 people have died in and around the area, advocates say, calling for government action
A tall cup of coffee in hand, Annie Ste-Croix sits in the morning sun beneath a tower of John Cabot.
As an outreach worker — or as she sometimes calls it, "Indigenous navigator" — the 20-year-old has been witness to scuffles, preying pimps and encounters with police in Cabot Square.
The Open Door shelter, a safe haven for the homeless, often Indigenous people who hung around the park opposite the old Forum, moved last year to a new location on Parc Avenue.
But many of the shelter's clientele didn't follow, and without services nearby, their struggle is obvious.
As many as 14 people have died in and around Cabot Square since the move, outreach workers say, as first reported in the Montreal Gazette — prompting calls for government action in the face of a growing crisis.
"They have nowhere to go," said Ste-Croix, who was born in Montreal to an Inuk mother and a father of Irish descent, and spent much of her childhood in foster care.
As part of a team working for the non-profit Doctors of the World Canada, Ste-Croix helps Indigenous people navigate the public health care system and, if asked, accompanies them to appointments.
"I try to be an inspiration," she said. "Just because there are stereotypes doesn't mean you can't get a job, can't fight addiction."
A neighbourhood in flux
The square has long been an informal meeting place for Inuit and First Nations people, many of whom came to Montreal for medical care and found themselves stuck here, without family and friends or other social supports.
The neighbourhood, once affordable for people of limited means, is undergoing a major transformation.
The former Montreal Children's Hospital has been bulldozed, replaced by new luxury condominiums, and the church that used to house the Open Door is boarded up.
But many people who relied on the Open Door's services have stayed.
Kevin Parry, 35, was one of those who used to be a frequent visitor. He was found dead last month on a park bench.
David Chapman, the former head of the Open Door, said Parry struggled with mental illness and addiction but was "strong, gracious and was a fabulous poet."
Chapman says the agency's move has been hard on many clients and former clients.
"The problem was the new location is more than two kilometres away," he said. "Most of the population is on foot, so [getting there] is really a bit of a stretch for them."
Marina Boulos-Winton, the executive director of Chez Doris, a women's shelter that remains in the area, said the closure of the Open Door has put more pressure on her own organization.
"There's no other resource," said Boulos-Winton. "When someone is homeless or penniless, they don't really have the means. They come to us for all of our basic needs."
Many people who frequent the area say they no longer feel safe.
"There's been a lot of violence because we're not sleeping well. We're not eating well," said Mina Sequaluk, originally from Kuujjuaq. "We've been fighting a lot — not personally me, but people."
"Two of my best friends passed away over that violence."
Mathieu Bertrand, another outreach worker, also said that with the closure of the Open Door, there aren't enough services for the homeless in the western parts of downtown.
It's affecting his work.
The Open Door was the only shelter in the west end of downtown to accept intoxicated clients and pets.
"As an example, I had a guy who was drunk in the Metro here," he said. "There was no way for me to bring him to the new Open Door. He was too drunk to move."
"There is nothing here where I can bring him."
Change on the way
Advocates are hopeful that could soon change.
Last month, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante told CBC News a plan is in the works to open a new wellness centre near Cabot Square by November.
An official announcement is expected shortly.
The Viens report, the result of a provincial inquiry into Quebec's treatment of Indigenous people, recommended additional funding for homeless Indigenous people and the creation of a shelter specifically reserved for homeless Inuit clientele.
Another report, released earlier this month, found Montreal police engage in systemic discrimination toward minorities when conducting street checks. Indigenous women were targeted in particular, according to the report.
Ste-Croix noted police recently stopped handing out tickets in the park, but said they must do more to help protect vulnerable women.
Later the same morning, Ste-Croix was propositioned by a man in the park — something she says happens frequently.
"It's disgusting," she says.
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Ste-Croix doesn't know any details about the new centre but she says anything would be better than nothing, especially with winter coming.
"At least they will have a place to eat," she says.