The inauguration ceremony at Resilience Montreal – a day center intended for the city’s homeless Indigenous population – was not yet over when clients started lining up at the door to get inside.
For two weeks, volunteer workers and organizations like Architects Without Borders toiled to transform an old commercial space into a fully-equipped, and culturally sensitive, space for some of the city’s most vulnerable.
The center was born of a collaboration between the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and a number of other stakeholders.
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, says it was always intended to curb the “crisis” situation plaguing First Nations and Inuit for years.
“You know, this summer I had a dream, and I think it was a dream that many of us had… and we are literally standing in it,” Nakuset said, addressing the crowd.
“It’s huge. And when we talk about reconciliation, this is it,” she added.
“A safe space, I would call it that,” said Mayor Valerie Plante. “I feel like that is what we are creating today.”
With winter fast approaching, Resilience officially opened its doors to the public despite being unfinished.
Showers, for example, aren’t yet operational, and a third of the staff – including security – have yet to be hired.
But starting immediately, the shelter will serve three meals a day, offer mental health and addictions counselling, physiotherapy, and other services specific to the homeless.
In the long run, they hope to offer an Indigenous-specific detox program and hospice care.
However, the shelter’s first official day was an exciting and emotional one for Putulik Komak, who, alongside Plante, was invited to cut the ribbon.
“Opening the ceremony today, that overwhelmed me – but I’m very grateful that I was chosen and recognized,” he said.
Komak has been homeless and squatting around the city on makeshift cardboard beds for 20 years now.
He said he got by using the scant resources available to Inuit men on the street, but says he often saw others who weren’t as lucky.
Some members of his community held vigil on the corner of Atwater Avenue and Sainte-Catherine Street to protest tickets and exorbitant fines handed down by police on almost a daily basis.
Owners of the former high-end sushi restaurant often called authorities to complain about loitering; an ironic fact, considering those ticketed now have a place all their own on the very same corner.
“Isn’t it interesting that the people they were calling the police on are the people now using the space?” said David Chapman, project manager at Resilience Montreal.
Few people understand the compounded problems faced by homeless people in Montreal like Chapman, the former acting director of The Open Door – a much-needed wet shelter forced to move across town when a developer purchased the church where it operated.
The 11 months following The Open Door’s closure presented overwhelming obstacles for the homeless left to congregate in nearby Cabot Square. Their days rife with police harassment, medical and psycho-social needs, and the stress of finding a spot in one of the city’s other, more crowded, shelters.
Fourteen people reportedly died while awaiting access to critical resources.
“It’s because of that suffering that Resilience Montreal is starting up now, and that there’s real momentum behind it,” Chapman explained.
Despite the mayor’s wishes for the shelter’s longevity, more complex work lies ahead once the logistical work is done.
“As soon as we move in, we’re already looking for another space,” Chapman said. In just a year, the shelter may be demolished to make room for the luxury condos slowly taking over the area.
“We move forward sincerely believing that we will find a permanent space for the homeless community who have also been in this area – and particularly in Cabot Square across the street – for decades,” he added.
“Eventually we will have to go to a new place, and that will be our greatest obstacle,” Nakuset added. “But if you dream it, it can happen. And [Resilience] is proof of that.”