Open Door shelter in Montreal moved, and so did the issues facing clients

During the day, the Open Door shelter is a refuge for many of Montreal’s disproportionately large Indigenous homeless population.

Despite being forced to move, the shelter appears to have landed on its feet.

“I try to carve every day, but sometimes we run out of stones,” says John Awa, who learned to carve soapstone from his uncle in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Awa has spent the last 11 years in Montreal – and until recently, much of it living rough on the streets.

“I actually got an apartment through the open door housing program,” he told APTN News.

Even though the Open Door shelter helped get him his own place, Awa still comes here to work.

At the old location, carvers were forced to work outside – now he can work here year round, inside.

“This is our carving room, if you look up there is a ventilation up there,” said David Chapman, director of the shelter while giving a tour around the new space.

About a week and a half ago, the shelter packed up and moved to its new location.

There’s no doubt that the new amenities here are an improvement.

There are showers, more than one bathroom, and a walk in fridge.

“So we don’t have to deal with the issue of rotting produce anymore,” Chapman said.

But as the old saying goes, location is everything.

The former location was conveniently located next to Cabot Square – a long time gathering place for many of the city’s vulnerable and homeless Indigenous population.

Over the past five years, the area has undergone a gentrification, with renovations, and non-stop condo construction.

The Open Door’s old location, a former church, was sold and is up next on the development slate.

“When you have 400 million dollar condo developments going up generally there’s some kind of planning behind that,” said Chapman.

Despite being a 40 minute walk from its former location, Chapman said that about 50 per cent of its old clientele are coming to the new shelter.

And so are the same problems that plagued the old site.

“She woke up and he was straddling her, trying to take off her pants had her hands underneath her clothes,” recounted John Tessier, an intervention worker at the shelter who was told this story by an Inuk woman last Thursday.

“She was able to fight him off, then he brutally beat her.”

The Open Door said that since 2017, 19 Indigenous women have come to them with accounts of sexual assault or rape suffered on the streets.

“Of those 19 cases, only one has almost made it to court,” Chapman said. “Only one,” he adds, which is expected to be heard in 2019.

Chapman said a big reason for that is many women feel going through the process of speaking to police is not worth it.

In February, at the Quebec Inquiry into Indigenous relations with some of the province’s public departments, Chapman testified that police need to do a better job working with vulnerable women on the streets.

For one, he said he would like to see police come to the women to gather statements.

“Is it all about legal purity? Really? Is that really what it’s all about? You can’t bring audio and video to a space where someone feels comfortable because you’re interested in legal purity? Really? While woman after woman is raped on the street? Get over yourself.”

Chapman adds that it’s important to accommodate the women because many of them suffer from addiction problems, and are often  wary of police because they have outstanding tickets.

Tessier said that although the police that responded to the recent call were sympathetic, they detained the alleged assailant briefly – and then released him.

He said an investigator did not call to take a statement about the incident until four days later.

“We had worked it out with station 12, the area where we were last, that if the victim was unwilling to go to the police station then we can have the detective come meet us,” he said.

APTN News asked the Montreal Police for details of the case but was told it does not comment on open investigations.

According to Chapman, the story has a silver lining – a donor has gifted the victim a ticket back home to her community in Nunavik.

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