Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette
When Marina Boulos-Winton started working at Chez Doris four years ago, she was surprised to find a woman asleep in a garbage shed next to the women’s day shelter.
The stranger was a sweet, frail woman in her 50s who’d come to Montreal from Inuit territory and run into some problems. Chez Doris helped her find an apartment and get back on her feet.
But the woman began to spiral after her daughter committed suicide in prison two years ago.
And the woman died in St-Luc Hospital last week after spending her final months drifting in and out of street life.
Since the Open Door homeless shelter on Atwater Ave. was forced to move last year, 14 people in the area have died of health problems related to homelessness, according to two street workers interviewed by the Montreal Gazette.
It was in the context of this latest tragedy that Boulos-Winton gave the neighbourhood some good news Wednesday: the City of Montreal has approved a zoning change that will allow Chez Doris to build an overnight shelter.
“I think (she) would have benefitted from the shelter or our longterm housing program,” Boulos-Winton said of the woman she first encountered in the garbage shed.
“It had always amazed me how someone so frail could survive outside for so long. She was incredibly resilient; she spoke very little English, she was quite deaf and she was so tiny.
“Too many of our women die prematurely — because of addiction, suicide. Some are murdered.”
The overnight shelter — which is to house up to 22 people — could be ready as of December 2020 if Chez Doris can secure the proper grants from the federal and municipal government, according to executive director Boulos-Winton.
They secured the site for the shelter last year after a donor, retired Montreal businessman Andrew Harper, gave $1 million toward buying a building near Atwater Ave.
It will cost about $2 million to renovate the building and would push Chez Doris’ annual operating costs to about $3 million. The shelter is working with all levels of government and private donors in the hope of securing that extra funding.
Roughly 25 per cent of Montreal’s 3,000 homeless are women, according to city statistics. In other words, there about 750 women on the streets on a given night.
“Too often, homelessness among women is invisible,” said Cathy Wong, the city councillor for Peter-McGill district, where Chez Doris is located. “You walk down the street and you realize that most homeless are men so the services out there tend to be for men. This project addresses that gap in services.”
After the Open Door shelter moved out of the neighbourhood last December, Chez Doris saw a steady increase in demand for its services. By the summer, people coming to the day centre in need of a shower increased by 50 per cent and its overall number of clients jumped by nearly a third, Boulos-Winton said.
On Tuesday, it was announced that a new shelter called Resilience Montreal will open next in a former McDonald’s on Atwater Ave. The facility will serve food, offer psychosocial assistance and a place to rest for homeless people between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., seven days a week.
But the problem of overnight housing and a more permanent solution to homelessness persists.
There’s a fur quilt that hangs over the staircase at Chez Doris. It was crafted between 1994 and 1995 by 14 Inuit women who used the day shelter. They were survivors, women who looked out for each other and tried to act as maternal figures to younger women in a crisis.
Today many of them are dead.
“I was looking through some photos of our clients the other day and I was astounded at how many of them have died,” Boulos-Winton said. “I’ve only been here for four years and we’ve lost so many women. It never gets easy.”
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