Open Door homeless centre soon to be without a home

The Open Door, a homeless centre serving a largely Indigenous population, may soon find itself without a home.

Organization has until end of July to vacate St. Stephen's Anglican Church near Cabot Square

David Chapman, acting director of the The Open Door, has been promising his clients that he will find a way to keep the centre open. (Charles Contant/CBC)

For Daniel Kasudluak, losing the homeless centre in St. Stephen's Anglican Church is like losing his life.

"If we lose it, I'm probably going to die before I'm 40." 

Kasudluak is 38.

The Open Door, a drop-in centre near Cabot Square whose clients are largely Indigenous, may soon find itself without a home after operating out of the church for nearly 30 years.

The Open Door's acting director David Chapman (right) holds Daniel Kasudluak (left) as he wipes away tears. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Every weekday from early morning to early afternoon, homeless and low-income people in downtown Montreal file into the centre for food, clothes, counselling — and a place to steal a nap in the church's pews.

Roughly half of all 150 people who come to the Open Door on a daily basis are Inuit, so the centre also offers carving, housing and transition programs for those hoping to one day return north.

But like many Anglican churches in Quebec, St. Stephen's is struggling to operate.

It's breaking my heart. Where are we going to go? What's going to happen to us?- Grace Blacksmith, client of the Open Door

The church was put up for sale in December 2016 and will now merge with St. Jax, another Anglican church located downtown.

Last week, the Open Door received a letter from the Anglican Diocese of Montreal — the church had found a buyer and the centre had until July 31 to find a new location.

"Every single day, Inuit and others come and ask me, 'Is this place closing? Is this going to be the end?' They're worried," said David Chapman, acting director at the centre.

'Without it, we're nothing'

Chapman has spent the last few days reassuring the centre's visitors that the only home they have will find a way to stay open.

But his assurances haven't stopped the tears from flowing.

"It better not close down," Elizabeth Pootogok said at the top her lungs. "We sleep there, we eat there, we get clothes there and everything."

"Without it, we're nothing."

Daniel Kasudluak (left) and Elizabeth Pootogok (right) say the Open Door is a lifeline for them. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Grace Blacksmith, a Cree woman who started dropping in at the Open Door last year, choked up as she contemplated life without the centre.

"It's breaking my heart. Where are we going to go? What's going to happen to us? [David] is trying really hard and I appreciate it," she said.

Blacksmith is scared.

"Before I knew about Open Door, I nearly got raped and beat on the street, and it was a place to go where I felt safe."

Chapman said the centre's closing would especially take a toll on its Inuit clients, a population he said has "known displacement for much of their lives."

"This is the story of the Indigenous people in this country," he added.

A changing neighbourhood

Though he wouldn't divulge who bought St. Stephen's, executive archdeacon Bill Gray told CBC a residential building may be in the plans.

The diocese initially offered the building to the Open Door and has since offered $30,000 to help the centre find a new home.

The Open Door is on the hunt for a location within six blocks of Cabot Square to stay close to its clients, but finding a large and affordable space in the area is proving difficult.

"Unfortunately, being a homeless centre, the property values in the region were just plain and simple out of reach for us," Chapman said.

He said the centre considered the site of the former Montreal Children's Hospital, but the space has since been bought by Devimco, a developer with plans to erect a $400-million residential project.

Devimco's proposed redevelopment of the old Montreal Children's site includes 1,400 housing units — 160 of them to be for social housing. (Devimco )

Chapman said negotiations with landlords stall as soon as they learn that the organization is a homeless centre.

While others express support for the centre's mission, he said they are quick to add a caveat — "not in my backyard."

The Open Door is located just within the limits of Westmount, and one of its partners said it has unsuccessfully appealed to the city to match its funds.

Makivik Corporation, an organization which represents 12,000 Inuit across Quebec, said it has yet to hear back from interim Mayor Christina Smith.

"I wish I had the power to give them money,"  Kasudluak said. "But I don't have it."

Chapman, in the meantime, refuses to close the door on the centre.

"I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to do it."

St. Stephen's Anglican Church, which has housed the Open Door for 29 years, will close and merge with St Jax, another Anglican church. (Charles Contant/CBC)

With files from Lauren McCallum and CBC Montreal's Daybreak