Rally to save Open Door homeless centre calls on politicians to act quickly

About a hundred people gathered in Cabot Square Sunday to keep the doors from closing on a "one-of-kind" homeless centre.

Montreal mayor, Quebec's Native Affairs Minister express support for centre, but solution yet to emerge

Dozens gathered in Cabot Square Sunday to call on politicians and others to keep the Open Door homeless centre from closing. (Melissa Fundira/CBC)

About a hundred people gathered in Cabot Square Sunday to keep the doors from closing on a "one-of-kind" homeless shelter.

The Open Door, whose clients are mostly Indigenous, received notice last week that it had 60 days to vacate its home of nearly 30 years in St. Stephen's Anglican Church.

The church was sold to a buyer who may redevelop the property for residential purposes. 

"It felt like a punch in the stomach," said John Tessier, an intervention worker at the drop-in centre.

Three years ago, Tessier was one of the 150 people who went to the centre every weekday for food, clothes and support.

"I had nowhere to stay, I ended up on the street, and the Open Door loved me until I was ready to love myself."

John Tessier, an intervention worker at the Open Door, was himself a homeless client of the centre just three years ago. (Melissa Fundira/CBC)

Now, Tessier fears downtown Montreal's homeless and low-income people will lose the refuge he once had.

Many shelters in the city have a zero tolerance policy for drugs or alcohol, and many homeless people have been barred from these centres for violating that rule, he said.

The Open Door, on the other hand, lives up to its name, welcoming clients dealing with substance abuse issues, or simply needing a place that allows them to bring their dogs.

The mayor's not thinking about the unfortunate people… All they care about is making their pockets happier and the rich people happier.- Shane Hughes, client of the Open Door

"This is a population that nobody else is willing to take care of," Tessier said, referring especially to the Inuit visitors who make up half the centre's clientele.

"It's our only drop-in centre in downtown Montreal," said Putulik Qumak, who's been going to the centre for 18 years.

"It's going to be tough now."

Condos vs. the homeless

David Chapman, Open Door's acting director, said he's on the look out for a centre within a six block radius of Cabot Square, which serves as meeting place for many Inuit people in Montreal. 

He's unsure how much it will cost, but said the new space will need to be big enough to accommodate the centre's visitors, offices for nurses and social workers, 50 beds, and other facilities. 

The search for a new locale has proven difficult, however, considering the property values in the area. 

Several people at Sunday's rally held signs calling on the city to prioritize homeless people over condos and contentious projects like the $40-million lighting of the Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Putulik Qumak, an Open Door client of 18 years, holds up a sign with his newphew at a rally to save the centre.

"I'm not happy at all because the mayor's not thinking about the unfortunate people," said Shane Hughes, who's been homeless for a year. 

"All they care about is making their pockets happier and the rich people happier. Just over here, the Children's Hospital, they could build a shelter for the homeless. But no, they'd rather tear it down and build condos for the rich people."

Coderre and Kelley to help the centre

Both Quebec's Native Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre have expressed support for the shelter, but concrete solutions have yet to emerge.

"It's dramatic and painful," Montreal homeless advocate Serge Lareault told CBC News, adding he plans to meet with the centre's board of directors on Tuesday.

Both Lareault and Kelley expressed concern with the timeframe, considering that the centre must vacate by July 31. 

The tight deadline, however, was avoidable, according to the rally's organizer.

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter, said she reached out to Coderre's office in January.

"It's unfortunate that we had to wait until Open Door got the notification that they have to close in order for people to do something," she said. 

Nakuset, who organized Sunday's rally, said it was the shame the city waited until the the Open Door was facing closure to provide support. (CBC)

No word from Westmount

The city, for its part, said it's been providing $30,000 a year to the centre for the last two years.

Lareault and others are wondering what Westmount, where Open Door is located, is doing to help.

One of the centre's partners, Makivik Corporation, reached out to the city for support in the past but has yet to hear back.

Westmount Interim Mayor Christina Smith was not available for comment Sunday.

Hughes in the meantime, is dreading what life may be like without the "one-of-a-kind" centre he's come to depend on.

"Hell. That's what it's going to be."

An emotional protester rests her head on David Chapman, acting director of the Open Door. (CBC)

With files from Navneet Pall