Mission’s Pearce looks to the future

By Isaak Olson on May 29, 2008

Maybe he lost his factory job of 20 years because the company took its business overseas. Maybe she’s addicted to gambling, alcohol or drugs. Maybe his wife was killed by a drunk driver and he never recovered from the loss. Maybe it’s a mental illness, a chronic sickness or just a lack of the right social tools that keep most of us on our feet in today’s fast paced world.

The homeless always have a story to tell and it’s almost always a multilayered tale that descends a downward spiral.

Officials at Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission (OBM) have been working to stop homelessness in its tracks and now, with a new director general looking to the future, there are plans to expand a comprehensive program that approaches the issue with a progressive, treatment-driven agenda dedicated to solutions and change rather than just temporary relief.

Founded in 1889, the OBM has long provided overnight shelter and meals to the city’s thousands of homeless but, in recent years, under the guiding hand of former Director General James Hughes, the mission has also become a place of transition that works to solve homelessness – a step that goes well beyond emergency services like food and refuge.

This work toward solution is what caught Matthew Pearce’s eye. When Hughes accepted a position in the New Brunswick government, Pearce, a native Montrealer who’s worked and traveled around the globe, stepped up to the plate. OBM’s new transitional programs work with clients from day one, providing counseling, referrals and living assistance. This, Pearce said, has already had a “significant impact” on the homeless community.

“With these solutions in place, there is an almost instant effect,” Pearce said. “That’s what excites me; to see solution; to see change. We put people into more stable lifestyles. I’m convinced we’re really onto something here.”

Having taken the position this past March, Pearce said he is settled in and now looking to the future of OBM. His sites are set on expanding these transitional programs that not only provide people the tools necessary for climbing out of the cycle of homelessness but also track people for several years in an effort to catch them if they fall back into the arms of destitution.

While city officials estimate 10,000 homeless, other estimates put the count at around 30,000. With people staying in temporary shelters, living on the streets, sleeping in cheap hotels, couch surfing, or calling their cars home, the number of homeless is hard to track, Pearce admitted, but there is no denying that homelessness has long been part of Montreal’s fabric. Citing a recent Simon Fraser University study that proves it is more cost effective to work with people rather than letting them go untreated, Pearce said gaining the financial footing necessary to run these programs long-term is going to be the next big step.

Given an initial boost by private donations, the transitional programs are going to need strong finances to continue and expand, Pearce said, and, besides looking to the government and private business sector, the new director will be asking Montrealers for help. Noting the mission’s more than a century’s service to the city, Pearce said he is confident people will be willing to give to the organization. Individual donations, he said, will be an important part of what has become a priority for OBM – funding. The mission will soon be launching a major fund raising campaign.

“We’re not talking about vast sums of money here,” Pearce said. “We have a formula for successes that brings quick results. This is the way to address homelessness. The OBM, for about 115 years, was about soothing homelessness. Now it’s about solving. Soothing is an important thing but it’s not good enough.”

Some, Pearce said, might see someone begging on the street and think they should just get a job, quit drinking or figure things out on their own. There is a wide range of reasons for how people end up falling out of a stable living situation. People, he said, don’t just wake up one day and decide to move out onto the streets.

“People are not choosing homelessness because it’s easy,” Pearce said. “It’s not an easy way out. There are always circumstances. None of them are there because it’s better than working for a living.”

Other initiatives include expanding an already growing collaboration with the other shelters in Montreal. Although OBM is Quebec’s largest organization serving homeless men and women, there are other shelters throughout the city that bring the total bed count up over a thousand. Collaboration, Pearce said, is a relatively new and effective means of providing food, shelter and transitional services.

Another example of collaboration is that between OBM and Verdun’s Douglas Hospital. The newly established La Maison de Claude Laramée opened its doors April 7. OBM, teamed up with the hospital that specializes in mental health care, provides released patients with a supported living environment that allows them a sense of freedom while building a new life and reintegrating into mainstream society. With room for nine so far, Pearce said, clients receive counseling from OBM’s trained staff as well as extended care from the hospital.

Pearce was born in Calgary and grew up in Montreal. With an education background in history and political science, Pearce said he has long had an interest in society and has demonstrated that throughout his life. After spending time trekking the globe, he got involved with Canada World Youth – an organization dedicated to delivering international education programs to youth through community immersion and volunteer experience. Over the two decades that followed, Pearce eventually became the president and CEO of Canada World Youth and held that role from 2000 to 2005.

Prior to his post at OBM, Pearce was the founding president of International Network for Corporate Responsibility, an organization that provides a place for corporations to make known what they are doing for society or the environment. Noting the millions of dollars that get donated to charitable work each year, Pearce said he wanted to acknowledge the work members of the private sector are doing for the world.

After catching wind of the open position of director general at OBM, Pearce said he researched the facility and got to know its mission. The new programs, dedicated to bringing people out of homelessness, were the biggest motivator behind his bid for the post. Overall, he said he is impressed with OBM and the dedication of its staff and board of directors. He said he sees the multifaceted organization as a means to combat homelessness and, with time, he would like to develop and expand OBM’s initiatives.“I think it’s a real success story but we’ve got to do more,” Pearce said. “I’m completely convinced, by evidence and results, that we are on the right track.”


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