Down and out in downtown Montreal

By P.A. Sévigny on March 25, 2010

As an advocate for some of the more vulnerable people across the nation, Liberal MP Marc Garneau couldn’t do much better than to use the downtown core’s Sac à dos to mount his campaign for sustained government support to help the poor, the sick and the destitute who live in the city’s downtown core.

“Sustainable funding is crucial to the continued operation of organizations in Montreal like Sac à dos,” said Garneau,”…and everybody knows the demand for their services is increasing by the day. More and more people are using the city’s food banks and line-ups for the shelters keep getting longer and longer.”

While sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cup at a table in Sac à dos -the downtown core’s basement drop-in center, Garneau refers to the organization’s street-level initiative as the kind of home-grown program which provides real solutions for the real problems. As one of the city’s more successful anti-poverty initiatives, Sac à dos is a testament to the 14 homeless men who decided they could do something to help others in much the same way as others once helped them. After scores of interviews and more than a few surveys done among the city’s homeless, the fourteen all agreed the city’s street people need a safe place where they can leave their backpacks for the day. 

“Remember,” said Michel. “For most of these guys, their pack is their home because for most of them, everything they have is in that pack.” When asked for his family name, Michel said he didn’t have one. “Just say you talked to Michel,” he said. “That’s who I am and that’s my name.” Due to a nasty coke habit which ruined most of his life, Michel told The Métropolitain about his own time on the streets. “You don’t know misery until you’ve been there,” he said. “You can’t believe how cold and miserable you can be until it’s the middle of winter and you’re walking the streets with cold feet and nowhere to go.”

While the people who run Sac à dos cannot provide their clients with a bed for the night, they do provide a locker for their back-packs, a cup of coffee for a quarter and a cheap bowl of soup for lunch. There’s a free mailbox for anyone who needs an address and there’s help for the illiterate who need it to fill out their forms. There’s a shower and a razor for anyone who wants one and there’s medical and legal help for anybody who needs it.

 On a cold Monday morning, the drop-in center is busy. While some men were slowly lining up to get some soup and a cup of coffee, others read the morning’s paper while some played cards. Apart from the city’s endemic poverty and its relatively stable number of homeless people walking the streets, recent statistics demonstrate an estimated 150 000 to possible 300 000 Canadians are currently homeless of which an estimated 40 000 depend upon urban missions for shelter.

 “We can do a lot to solve a lot of problems for the homeless,” said Garneau. “But the government has to match all the creativity and hard work done by community groups across the country if we’re going to win the fight against poverty.”


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