Many people in Val-d’Or agree that Willie’s Place is doing great things for homeless people and non-homeless people alike. But the day centre that opened on December 22 was funded with pilot-project money, and the financing runs out on March 31. Even though local businesses circulated a petition to city hall to support the project, the funding gap has organizers scrambling to keep a good thing going.
“We have frontline workers and we provide basic coffee and some services,” said Edith Cloutier, Executive Director of Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre. Additional services include a nurse who visits once a week as well as social services representatives to help clients access services.
The drop-in centre is named after Willie Hester, a well-known figure among the homeless in Val-d’Or before his death in 2013. The basic cost to pay rent and run the centre is $10,000 per month, Cloutier said.
In return, the past three months have seen fewer police calls and tickets issued for disturbing the peace or public drunkenness. Researchers are documenting these impacts. They are meeting with Val-d’Or’s mayor, chamber of commerce, and chief of police, as well as the head of the hospital’s emergency room in order to learn about what effects Willie’s Place has had on different aspects of city life.
It’s part of a longer study that the Friendship Centre has conducted since last summer on homelessness and Aboriginal people. Over the past five or six years, Cloutier said, visible Aboriginal homelessness in Val-d’Or has been on a steady upswing.
“We’re not used to seeing people who leave the communities in that context,” she said. “At one point people would go through to Montreal, but now Val-d’Or has become one of the first stops. It’s a mix of Cree and Algonquin people, mainly, and we understand many are in the city because of poverty. There’s the issue of rejection [in home communities], and the issue of people who are coming out of jail. There are different issues but we’ll have a better picture from this research project.”
The Friendship Centre, in collaboration with emergency homeless shelter La Piauvre and other local organizations, recognizes that Willie’s Place is one approach to helping support people on the streets – and hopefully help get them off the streets into homes, apartments, and more stable lives.
“We had over 35 of what we call Willie’s Members attend an afternoon community information meeting,” she explained. “We were overwhelmed. We asked people what the place means to them and they said, ‘It’s not just a warm place, it’s a safe place to go.’ They said it’s like a command post. Before they were scattered around town and really never had an idea what was going on in the community of homeless people. People worry about one another. They want to know where their friend is, and they hope he isn’t sleeping outside in the freezing cold. They take care of one another, and Willie’s Place has become a gathering place for them.”
Cloutier said that though the space is open to all homeless people, cultural and spiritual aspects are integrated into its programming to help Indigenous people feel more at home.
“When you have that cultural identity connection, that’s really special – it’s like a family. People call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ The connection is strong and it provides a lot of hope for some of our people in terms of seeking a better life.”
However, everyone is aware that the March 31 funding end-date is coming soon.
“Of course people are worried that it’s going to close,” she said. “I asked Romeo Saganash to support us in the political process. He helped us send a letter to Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, and to Air Creebec, which supported us on the more material side. When I gave that report to the meeting of Willie’s Members, they said, ‘Yes, the Grand Chief, but that’s not enough. You have to send it to each Chief of each community.’ That’s their recommendation. Not just Cree Chiefs, but Algonquin Chiefs also. They want to contribute in signing the letters, so we’re working on that. It will be sort of a joint letter – not just from the Friendship Centre and the executive director, but also the people who come to Willie’s Place.”
Some funding is coming in through the City of Val-d’Or, and Cloutier noted that the Homelessness Program that helped fund Willie’s Place to begin with has surpluses this year. But she recognized that much more work remains to keep the centre open.
“If we close on March 31 we’re very worried about what kind of impact it’s going to have on all the work that we’ve done in such a short time,” she said. “Some might say it’s an expensive project, but if it saves lives, it’s worth it.”