Father Emmett 'Pops' Johns, founder of Dans la rue, dead at 89

Father Emmett Johns, who devoted part of his life to helping street youth, died Saturday. He was 89.

Johns, who devoted part of his life to helping street youth, died Saturday

Father Emmett 'Pops' Johns founded Montreal's Dans La Rue in 1988. (CBC)

Father Emmett Johns, founder of Dans la rue and well-known champion of homeless and at-risk youth, died Saturday at the age of 89, the organization has announced.

Known by his nickname "Pops," Johns was an important actor in the fight against homelessness in Montreal.

In 1988, he started an organization that helps homeless and at-risk youth and called it Le Bon Dieu dans la rue. He roamed the streets in a motor home to help street youth. 

He would work long shifts from 9 p.m. to 3 or 4 a.m. Youth came to know his van as a safe place where they could find shelter, food and an attentive ear, according to Dans la rue's website.

Today, Dans la rue has more than 65 employees and nearly 135 volunteers.

The organization's evolution "was guided by Johns' philosophy of dedication, empathy and respect," reads a Facebook post announcing his death.

Johns, who retired in 2008, had Parkinson's disease.

The date of funeral services will be announced in the coming days, the organization says.

Pops' legacy will live on, say youth, coworkers

Many people's lives were changed by meeting Johns — from street youth to coworkers.

Alexis Charest, 25, said he would be without a home if it weren't for Johns.

"For a lot of young people [in Dans la rue's housing units] that I know, it's going to be hard news for them to find out [that he passed]."

"He saved lives," said Nathalie Rochefort, who worked at Dans la rue from 1997 to 2001.
Known by his nickname "Pops," Johns was an important actor in the fight against homelessness in Montreal. (CBC)

The values Johns instilled in the organization continue to be the foundational blocks of every intervention it performs, she added.

"His generosity, his openness," Rochefort said with emotion. "For him, every human was important."

The current director general of Dans la rue, Cécile Arbaud, agrees.

"His unconditional acceptance of young people, with zero judgment, and lots of hope and love for young people," she said. "He always saw the light for them."

She added that Johns' health had been declining for years, but that he was present for the organization's 25th anniversary celebration and the inauguration of housing units in 2014.

Moving forward, Arbaud said the organization will turn a page, but remember Johns' legacy.

"We have to continue his masterpiece. It's up to us to carry his torch now."

Mayor, McGill university express condolences

Politicians have been reaching out on Twitter to celebrate Johns' life and work, and to express condolences to his loved ones. 

Premier Philippe Couillard thanked Johns for the work he did in Montreal over the years, as did Mayor Valérie Plante. 

"A Montreal emblem of solidarity and mutual aid has just left us," she wrote.

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée called Johns "a model of compassion and commitment" for all Quebecers.

His life's work

Born on April 3, 1928 to Irish parents, Johns grew up in the parish of Sainte-Agnès, on the Plateau Mont-Royal.

He had long dreamed of being a missionary abroad, but his superiors decided that parish life suited him better.

At the age of 60, he felt helpless and considered committing suicide — but was inspired by a Toronto man who helped the homeless in his motor home.

Johns would soon make that his life's work.

In 1988, he bought a used vehicle with a $10,000 loan and began walking the streets of downtown Montreal at night until 4 a.m., four days a week.

"I was sometimes a little frightened to drive the big trailer in the city centre at night," he said at the time.

But Pops and his trailer soon became regulars in Montreal's night scene. 

"Many of their problems are the same as I have lived, I live," he said. "I still have depression, in addition to my Parkinson's and a lot of young people have this problem. So I can sympathize."

He eventually opened a shelter, called "the Bunker," which accepts minors and their pets. The shelter also includes a day centre and a school, intended to help young people enter the job force. 

Johns was named to the Order of Canada in 1999, and holds honorary degrees from several universities including McGill, Université du Québec à Montréal, and Concordia.

In 1989, the Catholic Church of Montreal recognized Pops' work with Bishop Leonard J. Crowley naming him "official chaplain of the homeless."
After 20 years, Father Emmett Johns looks back proudly at the the successful Montreal street youth organization he built from the ground up 6:14

With files from Radio-Canada


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