While many folks are still enjoying the warm heat of the August sun, luxuriating in it over vacation time with family or hitting the mall for back-to-school shopping, the growing numbers of alcohol and drug addicted people on the streets of Val-d’Or all face the same problem: where am I going to sleep tonight?

According to Sharon Hunter, a director at the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Center, the city’s itinerant population is constantly growing. But, unlike most cities, from the months of July through late November there is no shelter for individuals with alcohol or drug problems to lay their heads, even for the night.

Though there are facilities for Aboriginals requiring temporary lodging for medical or short-terms stays at institutions such as the Friendship Center, it cannot house individuals who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs as they may pose a threat to other clientele.

The same goes for the community’s local facility for the homeless, Maison La Piaule. Clients can go to the shelter for psychosocial services during the day or be housed at night but not while intoxicated as there is a zero-tolerance policy.

As many who find themselves on the streets cope with the pain of their circumstance by consuming drugs or alcohol, gamble away what they have for a chance at something better or fall victim to prostitution to survive, the streets are the only option.

Hunter, who specializes in social development, said that November of 2008 was the first time that the city had to create an emergency response team to provide shelter for the itinerant population after a local businessman discovered that there had been squatters in a wooded area on his business property. Left behind were remnants of a tented community and so many syringes that he described the site as a “piquerie,” or shooting gallery.

Groups like the Friendship Center came together with local Centres de santé et de services sociaux (CSSS), the Sûreté du Québec and various other groups that provide social services and shelter to look at the issue as a round table committee. Their answer was Le Dotoir (the Dorm), a pilot project led by the Val-d’Or CSSS to provide shelter from 6 pm until morning, seven days a week from January 15 until June 30 of 2009.

As many of the committee members departed for vacation at the end of June, the shelter closed its doors for months until the following winter. Unable to find a permanent solution, the committee reopened the project for the colder months straight until June but Le Dotoir closed its doors again this past June 30, leaving many without options.

Looking for solutions, the committee decided that a study needed to be done to assess the situation. Hunter and her colleagues conducted and wrote up the “Field Study on Homelessness in Val-d’Or” to give an outlook on the sources of homelessness in the city, how it is perpetuated and what their needs are.

Despite the study, Hunter said there is still unrest within the committee.

“There is no consensus when it comes to defining homelessness in Vall-d’Or or if there actually is homelessness in Val-d’Or because half of the members around the table said that it was just an addictions problem. The other half would then say that the addictions were a result of the homelessness and that the homelessness exists,” said Hunter.

In that Hunter works for the Friendship Center and also sits on the board of directors for La Piaule, she said that the Center didn’t want this issue to become one that is exclusively Native. Though field research indicated that Aboriginal clientele is well represented in the statistics, it was not exclusively a Native problem. Indeed, La Piaule’s statistical data indicated the reverse; that a growing population of non-Native homeless people is in need of services the city doesn’t offer year round.

According to Edith Cloutier, Executive Director of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Center, the CSSS is good at creating and mobilizing a team to deal with the city’s homelessness issue. But Cloutier says the committee is still strongly lacking a consensus outlook on homelessness. That’s why Cloutier wants to organize a one-day symposium this fall on the issue in the context of Val-d’Or.

From Cloutier’s perspective, not only are members of the committee not on the same page when it comes to homelessness but they also disagree about who is actually homeless. Cloutier said that one group, a local drug and alcohol recovery drop-in center, argued that Aboriginals who sleep outdoors in Val-d’Or are not in fact homeless because they have homes in their reserve communities. Their perspective was that the lack of shelter for Natives should be addressed from a drug and alcohol recovery perspective, not as a “homelessness” issue.

“Everybody is going to say that they have a home in their community when you meet a homeless person here in Val-d’Or. The person might say that they have a home in Waswanipi but they are living on the streets of Val-d’Or. If you see an Inuit living in a park in Montreal, you can ask him where he has a home and he might say Kuujjuaq. But he is still homeless,” said Cloutier.

The Friendship Center’s study indicated that while many Aboriginals come to Val-d’Or for education, employment opportunities, access to health care and a better quality of life, some end up in the urban center because they have no where else to go. This, said the study, could be because, “They feel (or they really are) rejected by their own community. Once in town, they are faced with a social and cultural system that is totally foreign to their own.”

The study also indicated how difficult it actually is to obtain housing in Val-d’Or when the vacancy rate is tremendously low, is very expensive and leads to a situation where owners can be very selective.

One interviewee within the field study said, “It is not rare to read that tenants have to be 50 years old and over, non-smokers, have not children or animals, and have good credit or a stable job and good references. It is difficult for most people to meet these criteria.”

What Cloutier is looking to do with the seminar that she is currently trying to organize is delve deeper into the homelessness issue within the city to elevate it beyond issues of race or other factors that often play roles in an individual’s situation such as addiction, prostitution and mental health.

“We do have a lot of people on the streets where we know for a fact that they have dependency problems or are into prostitution or have mental health problems,” she said. “They become consequences and we understand that we need to deal with these problems relating to mental health and drug addiction. But, within the seminar that we want to organize we want to discuss how beyond those consequences of living on the street.”

The real goal of the seminar, however, is to educate all parties so that a proper system can be put in place to support the homeless within the community year round and develop a social framework to enable that.

Cloutier suggested that some of the parties within the committee are exhibiting symptoms of denial when it comes to taking a sober look at the problem of homeless people who themselves are unable to stay sober. This, she suggested, may be in part due to an organizational mandate that precludes any outlook than one that fits an addictions mandate. She wondered whether a desire for funding increases puts added pressure to conform to a narrow interpretation of the phenomenon.

At the same time, La Piaule is also making a bid to house Le Dotoir within their own new facility when they undergo a rebuilding project. Until recently, however, no new funding has been made available for this purpose.

Cloutier said that she and her colleagues at the Friendship Center are supportive of the plan and are hopeful that some funding can be made available for the project under the recently announced Plan d’action interministériel en itinérance 2010-2013 (2010-2013 interdepartmental action plan against homelessness) by the Quebec ministry of health and social services.

The Friendship Center may not be able to contribute to easing the homelessness issue on a physical level, but Cloutier said that she wants to continue to provide leadership on the issue.

“We want to contribute in terms of moving the vision one step forward and not just stop at defining it as we have chronic homelessness. We are saying that this is irrelevant because we have homelessness and so let’s just try and develop a strategy that will meet the needs and work together,” she said.