The big white truck made stops at various set locations in temperatures that hovered around -17 C, checking on homeless people off the beaten path.
Our first stop in the nine-passenger van with the Ka’wahse Street Patrol was the park in front of the Montreal Children’s Hospital, otherwise known as Inuit Park for the large amount of homeless Inuks who call the area home.
Helen, an Inuk from Chisasibi, told her story of being down on her luck. She used to volunteer for the street patrol. She needed money, she said, and volunteering wasn’t paying the bills. So for now she stays with her sister nearby. Or on the street when she has to. She has had trouble finding a job in the big city.
The Ka’wahse Street Patrol is an initiative of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal. Almost every week night, the patrol hands out sandwiches, juice, coffee and snacks, and some nights, blankets or clothing as well.
Although most of the clients are homeless, Ka’wahse Director Brett Pineau figures at least 10 per cent of the clientele are “at risk” to become homeless. These are people like Helen from Chisasibi who stays with her sister.
Pineau is a Métis from Regina and has a Masters degree in Business Administration from McGill University. He used to work at a couple of big banks, but realized that he had little passion for the corporate world. He arrived in Montreal in 1999 and has been working for the Street Patrol for a year and a half.
Pineau’s philosophy for dealing with someone who is intoxicated and confrontational is simple. “Be their best friend, don’t confront them and try to talk them down,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, I tell everyone to get in the van and we leave.”
He says however that it’s very rare to meet up with a confrontational homeless person. They are usually very happy to see the patrol arrive, and often wait on certain corners to make sure they get their chance to eat or drink coffee, and more often than you would think, chat.
On any given night 50 to 130 people will come by the van. They range in age from teens to elders.
Unable to find jobs and stuck in a rut, some Crees who come to Montreal end up on the street. A rough estimate of Crees onthe street by Sabastien Papatens, the Youth Outreach Worker who also works for Ka’wahse, is “around 20, 40 if you include those who are at risk.”
Papatens is originally from Senneterre, but is a member of the Lac Simon Algonquin community. His grandmother comes from Waswanipi.
“They come to the city to get a place, hit some bad luck and then they’re on the street,” he said. Racism is also a big part of it as many landlords refuse to rent to Native people.
The Centre also provides help to those trying to make it on their own in Montreal by showing clients how to renew their health care insurance or making a long distance phone call to their home community for free. They also try to help them get a job by referring them to the First Nations Human Resource Centre.
A nurse rides along in the van once a week to analyze the health of people on the street. She looks for visible signs of scarring, pain or even mental suffering. Sometimes she doesn’t even have to observe the pain; the people come to her.
“I love what I do,” said Nurse Penelope Boudreault, who has been with Ka’wahse for three months. She works with the homeless as well as for Stella, an organization that helps prostitutes by providing clean needles, condoms or referrals to a doctor. “It’s very rewarding, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else,” she said.
Her employer, Médecins du Monde, provides vital services like these all over the world.
The centre also gets a helping hand from the Kahnawake Mohawk community. Tota’s Tickle Trunk collects various clothing from local residents. Owner Sonny Joe Cross also has a radio show that helps to encourage people to donate items they are thinking of throwing out. Cross provides 50-60 bags of clothing every three weeks or so.
As the van meanders up a street from Ste. Catherine, Michèle Soucy, a volunteer for over two years now, spots a homeless man on the side of a building. She hollers at Pineau to stop, gets out and runs to see what he needs. After the non-native man relieves himself, he says he wants a juice. Quickly gulping down the sweet beverage, he asks for another. Soucy happily obliges.
It’s a Ka’wahse policy not to turn anyone down, whether they are black, white or any other colour or race, even though the service is set up for Native people and funded as such by the Canadian government.
“It’s about love,” Soucy told the Nation. “I love to see their faces when we get there and give them food or a blanket.”
Soucy spots another patron, Francine, this time woefully underdressed and in dire need of a something to keep her warm. Sadly, Ka’wahse doesn’t have any on this night. A sweater is given instead. The van drives off and Michèle looks back, her face saddened that she couldn’t provide more warmth for her.
“She has to watch how she approaches people sometimes,” Pineau said matter-of-factly of Michèle Soucy. “One time she went up to a man who appeared to be sleeping and she tapped him on the shoulder. That’s very dangerous. He won’t necessarily be able to differentiate her from someone who is trying to rob him and she could get stabbed or worse,” he said.
As a former personal trainer, Pineau is ready for the troubles that come his way, but he tries to avoid them at all cost.
“We’re here to help them no matter what,” he said. “If it came to it, we would defend ourselves, but that’s the last thing we want to do. It could end up making things worse for those people who suffer from mental illness or depression.”
A clipboard keeps track of the person’s initials, if they are Native or not and if they have been referred to a doctor or CLSC. People can remain anonymous, but it makes it harder for Pineau’s crew to justify their budget at the end of the year.
Eventually, the conversation in the van turns to the Ville Marie borough’s decision to ban people, homeless or not, from their parks. This not only creates a problem within the homeless community, it also puts pressure on other organizations. Homeless people now have to move further east or west or sleep in the doorways of businesses.
“The fat cats must have gotten tired of seeing the reality of the homeless population and decided to offload it to someone else,” Pineau said. “That’s their solution to poverty.”
He also added that Ka’wahse’s funding from Ottawa needs to be renewed in March. Pineau is worried because the Harper government has demonstrated it is less open toward Aboriginal initiatives than the previous Liberal administration.
As the van makes its last rounds, a short pit stop is made at Nurse Penelope Boudreault’s place of work. A single blanket is found. Pineau rushes back to see if Francine, the woman who was not dressed properly for the extreme weather, is still near Theatre St-Denis.
Michèle Soucy runs out to look for her but she’s gone. In the meantime, two more people come to the van for food and juice.
After four hours on the street in freezing temperatures, the back door of the van closes and we head back to the centre, a little more street smart and with a heavier heart for the unfortunate souls stuck on the street at this time of year.