'Every day for me is Thanksgiving': Former homeless Montrealer helps dish out turkey for 350

Charles Rochon was one of dozens of staff and volunteers who served turkey and all the fixings to men at Welcome Hall Mission's Macaulay emergency shelter Monday evening. Fourteen years ago, he was down and out.

Charles Rochon, once down and out, credits Welcome Hall Mission for getting him on his feet and giving back

Men take their places at the table in the dining hall at Welcome Hall Mission's Macaulay emergency shelter on Thanksgiving Monday. (CBC)

Charles Rochon looks out over the dining room — row upon row of long tables laid out with white linen and decorated with pumpkins, gourds and hay.

Men file in and take a seat. In front of each of them, a specially printed placemat reads, "Wishing you blessings and strength this Thanksgiving."

"Every day for me is Thanksgiving," says Rochon, with a nod to the guests. "We love these guys."

"We don't love the situation they are in, but we love when they come to see us and ask for help."

Fourteen years ago, Rochon was one of "these guys" — living on the street, with nowhere else to go for a bed or a meal but Welcome Hall Mission.

"They saved my life," he says.

Charles Rochon has worked at Welcome Hall Mission for 12 years. For two years before that, he was a client. (CBC)

Now, on Thanksgiving Day especially, he welcomes a chance to give something back.

For the past 12 years, Rochon has been on the staff of the mission.

On Monday, he and dozens of other staff and volunteers — including some of the players from the Montreal Alouettes — served turkey and all the fixings to 350 of the city's down-and-out men.

"It's exciting," said Sam Watts, the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, as, behind him in the kitchen, a cook stacked steaming cobs of corn onto stainless steel serving trays.

"It's also disappointing — that so many people in Montreal still experience the reality of homelessness."

Kitchen staff get ready to serve fresh cobs of corn at Welcome Hall Mission's Thanksgiving dinner. (CBC)

More than a soup kitchen

The mission is 126 years old this year.

It started as a place to get a bowl of soup and now feeds 3,000 a week through its market-style food bank, offers emergency shelter for 200 Montrealers, and helps men with addiction issues find permanent housing and reintegrate into society.

It also runs a day centre for at-risk teens and young adults, to help equip them to find work or return to school. Another program, Coeur à soeur, helps support young expectant and new mothers who are on their own.

"Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'd like to try homelessness,'" says Sam Watts, CEO of Welcome Home Mission. (CBC)

The mission's goal, says Watts, is to get people in dire circumstances out of emergency shelters and help them get back on their feet.

"Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'd like to try homelessness,'" says Watts.

"It's always a function of something that happened in their life — usually a health problem, loss of a job or a family relationship."

Yanni Floros, who's been using the services of Welcome Hall Mission on and off for the past five years, says former homeless men now working at the mission motivate him to get back on his feet. (CBC)

'If they can do it, why can't I?'

Yanni Floros is one of those people.

A guest at Monday's Thanksgiving feast at the mission's Macaulay emergency shelter for men, he's been using the mission' services of Welcome Hall Mission on and off for the past five years.

"They've fed me. They've clothed me. They've washed me," he says. "It's nice to eat a hot meal and not something out of the garbage."

But more than that, Floros says, knowing that mission staff like Charles Rochon were walking in his shoes not so long ago gives him motivation to sort out his life.

"I learn from people like that," Floros says. "If they can do it, why can't I?"

"And once I get on my feet, I'm going to give back."

with files from CBC's Matt D'Amours