Montreal's The Open Door shelter gets a new home and new concerned neighbours
'It's common that people don't want it in their neighbourhoods,' says centre's acting director
Some residents around Montreal's Milton Park have launched a petition concerning a homeless drop-in centre moving into their neighbourhood.
The Open Door, which currently serves a large Inuit population around Cabot Square, will begin renovating the basement of Notre Dame de la Salette after signing a five-year lease with the church.
The centre has offered free meals, access to clothing and basic needs to homeless and low income people since 1988. About 40 per cent of the clients are Indigenous, with the majority being Inuit.
"If people are going to start leaving the area, there's an impact on the price of houses," said Tony Antakly, a Milton Park homeowner for 20 years.
"If people are going to be harassed because of these newcomers who are mostly drug addicts, and they bring in criminality and so on, that has a significant impact on the life of the area."
Antakly was one of 40 residents and businesses to sign a petition demanding an independent study on the socioeconomic impacts the centre will have on the neighbourhood before the project goes ahead.
The centre has been searching for a new building since December 2016, after a developer purchased the old church where it currently operates west of Cabot Square. It's been a difficult task, said David Chapman, the centre's acting director, in part due to stigmas around homeless people and Indigenous people.
"The approach to homelessness is frequently 'You know, while we like the idea of creating resources for homeless people...' But it's common that people don't want it in their neighbourhoods."
Concerns about drugs and alcohol
The petition cites concerns over a possible influx of homeless people into the area.
"We estimate that there will be in total several hundred newcomers, perhaps more than 300 homeless," the petition states.
"We know that many of these people who will be served, including the Inuit community, suffer from alcoholism and chronic addiction. As a result, the arrival of drug dealers and other illegal substances seems inevitable," states the petition.
Annie Roussy-Ste-Croix, a volunteer at The Open Door, said it's "very stereotypical thinking" that the centre would bring alcoholics and drug addicts to the new neighbourhood.
Roussy-Ste-Croix's mother is an Inuk from Salluit. She volunteers because many of her family members living in Montreal are homeless and frequent Cabot Square and The Open Door.
"It's hard to see them homeless because I don't really know why, but I'm not going to ask those questions. It's not for me to ask in case it brings up past traumas," said Roussy-Ste-Croix.
"Some of them have been there very long, for like two, three years or even longer. It's kind of sad because it's like their home."
'Same old' situation
Nakuset, executive director at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and representative for the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network's social services committee, said the petition is the "same old" situation.
"It seems that every time an organization that you know has an Indigenous population, nobody wants it in their neighborhood," she said.
"This is a theme that happens often with Indigenous clientele, especially those that are are most vulnerable."
The Open Door is one of the few "wet" shelters in the city that will accept clients that others turn away due to intoxication or struggles with addiction issues.
It also gears its services to the high number of Indigenous clients, including a housing program to get homeless Inuit off the street and into apartments, a soapstone carving program. This past year it helped seven clients return home to their northern communities.
"They're an incredibly helpful organization and the thing is they're helping a population that nobody seems to really want to help," said Nakuset.
Services for homeless
Nakuset said there's a growing number of homeless people in the area, and a place like The Open Door will help provide services to them. The city agrees.
"It's important to give The Open Door a chance to integrate into the community and to show us that they can be a useful resource for the homeless that are already living in Milton Park," said city councillor Maeva Vilain.
"A new resource like that will appease the situation and not make it worse, but of course Montreal will work very hard to monitor the situation."
Despite the new location, both Nakuset and Chapman expect many Inuit to stay put at Cabot Square regardless of when The Open Door moves in. The Cabot Square Project, which includes representation from the city and several Indigenous organizations, has been preparing for the centre's move for months.
"Should the population all move to the new Open Door, that's great and whoever's left over, we'll take care of them," said Nakuset.
"I think the city of Montreal is also taking proactive steps on how to make sure that the best practices that we created at Cabot Square are now be implemented in that area where The Open Door is going to be."
with files from Kate McKenna and Brian Lapuz