For the past two years, Val-d’Or has used an emergency shelter, Le Dotoir, to provide temporary beds for intoxicated individuals from the onset of winter until late June. However, a provincial funding cut announced in late August means Le Dotoir will not reopen this winter. Provincial agencies and support groups have been working to provide alternatives for these individuals during the winter but have yet to come to an agreement on what kinds of future services to offer.
While there are other shelters and services available to the homeless in Val-d’Or, Le Dotoir was the only one that offered overnight shelter to those who are intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. Without it or another facility with a similar mandate, intoxicated itinerants may find themselves out in the cold this winter.
During the first year of Le Dotoir’s operations, the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre (VDNFC) developed a study to assess the homelessness situation in Val-d’Or. The “Field Study on Homelessness in Val-d’Or” (FSH) was written by the Centre’s Director of Social Development, Sharon Hunter. Among other findings, Hunter explained why homelessness in the region has a particularly Native image and what has contributed to this phenomenon.
The following feature story includes a series of highlights from the study as well as perspectives from various individuals who either work with the homeless or have experienced homelessness.
They include Penelope (not her real name), a Cree woman who spent many years on the streets of Val-d’Or while addicted to drugs and alcohol; Karine Carufel, an outreach worker from the VDNFC; and Stéphane Grenier, President of the Board of Directors for a local shelter called La Piaule and the director of the Masters in Social Work program at the l’Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
The study and its findings
The “Field Study on Homelessness” found that, while Val-d’Or appears to have a large Aboriginal population, looks can be deceiving. According to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census, only 6.2%, or 2,658 people, in a city with a population of 32,288 identified themselves as Aboriginal.
The number may seem low, but Val-d’Or is a service centre for a much larger regional Aboriginal population base. Noted the study: “Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay reported 5,462 Cree patients and escorts going to Val-d’Or in 2007-2008 for health services in the region’s institutions.” It also made reference to the fact that the majority of James Bay Cree babies are delivered in Val-d’Or.
Thus, the study refers to the city as a “hub” for northern Quebec – and a main gateway to the urban south for rapidly growing Aboriginal communities in the north.
The FSH stated that many the Aboriginal newcomers to Val-d’Or are searching for a better life for themselves and their children, but face obstacles due to their status as a minority. Access to education and employment opportunities, to health care, or simply an enhanced quality of life are principle attractions of the city.
But there also negative reasons that Natives end up there. According to data presented in the study, “some people come to live in town not by choice but because they feel (or they really are) rejected by their own community.”
Working on the streets with many of Val-d’Or’s homeless, Karine Carufel said she sees this situation on a daily basis.
“One person said to me once that when I go back to my community, the looks I get from people make me wish I was back in Val-d’Or,” Carufel explained. “So, that is one of the reasons they stayed. For some it is family problems up there in their home communities, the way others perceive them. I guess that some people must like it better here because they tell me that they don’t want to go back home. Val-d’Or has become their home.”
Once in Val-d’Or, however, Aboriginals face barriers to their integration. Not only is the city culturally different from the Aboriginal communities of origin, but many newcomers also face prejudice, racism and discrimination that effectively block their social and economic success. These factors contribute to drug and alcohol abuse and turn some toward prostitution. All too often, this downward spiral leads individuals to the streets, where the contributing factors are reinforced.
Adding to this phenomenon is the concentration of gambling and drinking in the city. In a 1.2 km radius of Val-d’Or’s core, there are 48 identifiable bars; the city’s ratio of 6.6 video lottery terminals per 1,000 people is significantly higher than the Quebec average of 1.9.
Looking back at her 16 years in Val-d’Or, five of which she spent on the streets, and all of which involved in drugs and alcohol, Penelope said she really has been “to hell and back.”
“The first time I went to Val-d’Or I was homeless because I didn’t know anybody and I spent most of my time in the bars, drinking. I would sleep at people’s places who I didn’t know. It was hard because I didn’t know anybody and I was new to the city and I was so used to living in a small community. I lived on the street for a long time, years,” said Penelope.
Penelope went to Val-d’Or initially for a week of partying that turned into a decade and a half of self-abuse.
In her home community she had left behind two toddlers, both of whom she had before turning 20. Also left behind was a large family that she never really had the opportunity to know because of her childhood exile in the residential school system. In Val-d’Or she was taken in by a new kind of family, one comprised of street people and Natives from in and around the city. She explained that being away in residential school made leaving her home community almost seamless.
“I made friends and they took care of me and I managed to find other means of survival, some stuff that I am not proud of, but shit happens. I went there thinking that I was just going to go and have a good time and then come home, but it didn’t end up like that. I went there and I stayed there [on the streets] for five years and I couldn’t get out. I was stuck,” said Penelope.
Penelope said that she couldn’t go home because she was too busy drinking. She was oblivious to the passage of time because her main priority was fuelling her addiction. Where she slept at night was a secondary worry.
Support workers interviewed in the study identified alcohol and drug abuse and the resulting intoxication as the most visible contributing factor to homelessness in Val-d’Or, one that is closely associated with prostitution.
“Although it affects both men and women, it seems that young women represent the great majority [of prostitutes]. These young women are more exposed and more vulnerable to violence. Also, they are considered to be more at risk of developing sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STIs), diseases that are reportable,” said the study.
Because there is such easy access to alcohol, gambling and street drugs in Val-d’Or, along with a many number of individuals willing to take advantage of those not so familiar with the big city, Penelope said it is easy for Crees to fall into a self-destructive lifestyle.
“It is very easy, very, very easy,” Penelope acknowledged. “It can sneak up on you. You can think, ‘Oh, I am having fun,’ but in reality it isn’t fun at all. I ended up doing a lot of things that are not right.”
While Aboriginals are not the only homeless individuals in Val-d’Or, the study points out that Aboriginal homelessness takes on a different nature. Sometimes these individuals will go back to their home communities for a period of time but then return to the city.
Interestingly, many of the Aboriginals who find themselves in Val-d’Or remain there instead of heading further south to other major Quebec cities such as Montreal.
Carufel said she frequently sees homeless Aboriginals go back and forth between the city and the north.
In her line of work in outreach, Carufel will frequently have individuals drop by her office at the Friendship Centre for everything from food, a compassionate ear or even bus tickets to their home communities.
“With the bus tickets, some of them will decide that they have had enough and want to go so that they can take a breather and get back to reality. As soon as they have decompressed, however, they often come back. I will ask them if they are coming back and they tell me that they are really going to try not to but they can’t promise. Some of them end up coming back here for follow up with the support workers and to get therapy,” said Carufel.
The FSH notes that homeless Aboriginals tend to remain for longer periods in Val-d’Or on each succeeding visit. They therefore begin to “cut themselves off from all the social bonds that could enable them to keep in touch with their world and culture.” As a result, they experience isolation and loss of identity, the study concluded.
While the definition of homelessness in this context may be fluid, what jumps out in the data is that Aboriginals are vastly over-represented, accounting for up to half the city’s homeless population.
No Room at the Inn
According to Stéphane Grenier, who also authored a study on homelessness and Val-d’Or’s housing crisis, a vacancy rate of less than one percent for apartments and social housing in Val-d’Or plays a major role in the city’s homelessness drama.
Grenier said the housing problem is bad throughout the region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue, but that it would take 500 new social housing units just to solve Val-d’Or’s crisis.
Notably, the lack of available housing is not a result of a population boom. Instead, it’s due to the growing tendency over the past few decades for individuals to live alone.
“We have had five years now with a zero percent vacancy rate and we have never seen this anywhere in Canadian history. I believe that we have the lowest vacancy rate in the entire country,” said Grenier.
But with high building costs in the north, few companies are willing to build new rental apartment units. According to Grenier’s research, a new single or double occupancy apartment would need monthly rents of $800-$900 just to cover costs. At that price, most individuals prefer to buy a condo as the rent is on par with a mortgage.
The study quoted an unnamed individual who works with Val-d’Or’s homeless: “The present housing crisis is of no help. It is very difficult to find a place to live, housing is very expensive and owners are very selective. It is not rare to read that tenants have to be 50 years old and over, non-smokers, have no children, no animals, and have good credit or a stable job and good references. It is difficult for most people to meet these criteria.”
When asked how difficult it was for her Aboriginal clientele to find housing, Carufel could only exclaim, “C’est l’enfer!” (“It’s hell!”). Carufel has also had difficulty renting an apartment even though she is a white francophone with stable employment. For an Aboriginal person on welfare, she said the situation is next to impossible.
Complicating matters, there are bars in Val-d’Or that rent rooms to patrons on upper floors. But the bar owners select prospective tenants and Carufel says they some times demand and receive sexual favours, or other services, because of the competition for these coveted rooms. There are also practical financial headaches.
“Those rooms can be rented by the month and so normally it is fine when someone receives their cheque and takes care of the rent on time. But often if they get the cheque on a Friday, by the Monday it is gone and there can be problems. For the person who decides who gets those rooms it is often difficult too,” said Carufel.
When Penelope did have apartments in the city, she said she was lucky because she had a francophone boyfriend who sheltered her from the common discriminatory scenarios.
“I wouldn’t even bother to go for interviews for apartments because I was Native and I knew that they wouldn’t give it to me anyway,” said Penelope, who would send the boyfriend instead. Then she would frequently lose these apartments as the alcohol and drugs would burn up the rent money.
Different kinds of homelessness
Throughout the course of a year in Val-d’Or, there is an average of 400 people without a place to sleep, said Grenier.
This group of 400 individuals can be roughly divided into three groups, with the first group belonging to what he described as “punctual homeless,” about 60% of the total. These people become homeless due to specific incident – a relationship breakdown or a fire. While these individuals might end up in the La Piaule shelter, their homelessness is usually a one-time event and they will most likely never return to the shelter after a short stay of a few days to a few weeks.
The second group Grenier described as those in a chronic and cyclic homelessness situation. This group, about 30% of the total, consists of those who will find housing but then later return to the shelter after periods of six months to two years. He said many in this group suffer from a mix of mental health and substance abuse issues that perpetuate this cycle, but who could be helped with a form of supervised social housing that is currently unavailable in the city.
“Then there is the other 10%, 30 to 40 people who live on the streets,” Grenier observed. “These people are chronic addicts and alcoholics who are basically drunk all day. We do not actually understand the process for these 30-40 people because some times of the year there are only about 12 of them and then at other times there can be up to 50 of them.”
At about 80%, Native people dominate this category, said Grenier. “They are much more vulnerable than all the rest,” added Grenier.
Grenier said he was informed in late August by the provincial Agence de la santé et des services sociaux that there would be no funding to open up another Dotoir or dormitory for intoxicated individuals without shelter this winter. Nor has the agency ever provided a service structure for these individuals. Grenier said he could not understand why there is no funding available from the agency that is supposed to be in charge of the health of the region’s population. He said he is fearful for what it is going to take for change to come.
“Maybe we are going to have to wait until someone dies in the streets. It will probably be someone who is First Nations too because they often have problems with diabetes or other health problems. I am quite sure that it will happen,” said Grenier.
As far as he is concerned, providing a permanent safe place for these individuals to sleep at night, similar to Le Dotoir, is primary harm reduction for these individuals. Simply put, many will die without the service.
Grenier also described a current conflict between Quebec agencies that is at the heart of this issue. Quebec’s public health department has money for programs but the regional Agences de la santé et des services sociaux cannot seem to get their hands on these dollars.
Carufel also pointed out that education for those within the health and social services sector is a major issue. Many of her clientele cannot access help if they are subject to racism and discrimination. She described countless scenarios in which she and other outreach workers have had to accompany homeless individuals for medical services or even just out to get a meal. Without the workers’ presence, the homeless are treated miserably, particularly if they are Aboriginal.
“For sure, there is racism everywhere but when you are living on the streets it is even more difficult because you are facing two different stigma. First, because you are homeless, and then because you are also Native and homeless. It is the drunken Aboriginal stereotype,” said Carufel.
Concluded the “Field Study on Homelessness”: “Because the homelessness problem results from an overall social, economic, political and cultural situation, it is important to find global solutions. In this perspective, homelessness should not only be addressed by health or social services organizations and community groups, but also by institutions such as the police and above all by political leaders at various levels (mayors, governments, chiefs of neighbouring communities, etc…). They are the ones who ultimately – because of their position of authority – could truly give a new course to the fight against homelessness.”
While there is a team in Val-d’Or currently working on a homelessness action plan – including groups such as the VDNFC, various public health groups from different government departments, police and other shelters and advocacy groups – there is no plan in place yet.
At the same time, Edith Cloutier, the Executive Director of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre, is organizing a symposium this fall to educate other players in the group about the realities of Aboriginal homelessness so that the services offered will be culturally appropriate.
As for Penelope, after many attempts, she is now back living in her home community. She has a job and appears to have found some peace of mind.
“When I finally did come home it was because I wanted to live and I wanted to continue living,” said Penelope. “I knew that if I continued to live in the city that I would die over there, for sure. ”