McGill student starts initiative to bring food, supplies to homeless people camped out near campus
Meals for Milton-Parc makes food, prepares hygiene kits and donates winter clothes for people in need
Sophie Hart, a fourth-year student at McGill University, lives in the neighbourhood of Milton Park, close to the school's downtown campus.
This year, she's noticed more people than ever camped outside, sleeping on benches and scrambling for food and necessities.
"With COVID-19 and all of the services that have been reduced, I feel like there was a lack of support for the un-housed in our area," Hart told CBC.
So, instead of simply walking by, she decided to take action.
"I started by going up to them and asking them how I could support them," she said.
After learning about some of their needs, Hart, 21, founded Meals for Milton-Parc.
The group of students and young professionals, which started with a handful of people, has now grown to 150 members.
The volunteers take turns cooking and delivering hot meals to those in the Milton Park area, all while respecting public health guidelines, Hart said.
They also prepare hygiene kits and warm clothes packages, like wool socks that people can use throughout the winter.
"I wanted to make sure that people knew that they had support from the community and they weren't forgotten," Hart said. "I want them to know that people really want to make sure that they would be safe throughout the pandemic and throughout the winter."
Helping out local shelter
With fewer people spending all day on the streets during the winter, Meals for Milton-Parc has shifted its focus to helping shelters like The Open Door.
To deal with the increased demand for its services related to the pandemic, The Open Door shelter is now open 24 hours a day.
"Everything is needed in greater amounts," said Vanessa Gagnon, volunteer co-ordinator at Open Door.
"We have more intervention workers[...], a security guard at night. We have a cleaning team that is there almost full time and we need way more volunteers."
Gagnon says the pandemic has made the homeless reality more obvious in Montreal, as more people are pushed onto the streets.
"Where people used to go to feel safe and to be warm — like to buy a coffee somewhere or hang out in a shopping mall — all of those options, they're not options anymore," Gagnon said.
The Open Door has had to adjust its services to be able to answer the community's needs — like transforming into an overnight shelter.
"We don't have specific beds, like, there's some blue mattresses that they can use, but it's a limited amount because of the COVID regulations and so some of them just sleep on the floor directly."
Gagnon says the Meals for Milton-Parc group has been a huge support throughout this transition.
"They're sending food, water, homemade meals ... so that's really helpful. And they're also checking in with our needs depending on the week."
For Hart, the volunteers also benefit from their charitable work, by getting a chance to connect with one another over a good cause.
"A lot of people aren't as connected [since] there are no classes," she said. "It's a good way for students to feel involved in the community and to support those who are in need."
Montreal Public Health has temporarily ordered the Open Door shelter to close after a client tested positive for COVID-19. People using its services have been redirected to other designated homeless shelters in the area.