(Photo: David Chapman)
In March, an Anglican mission group from Ontario spent four days at the Open Door, a homeless day shelter in Montreal. Sharon Dewey Hetke participated in a round-table discussion with The Rev. David Chapman, Director of the Open Door. Chapman, who attends Emmaus Fellowship, an ANIC parish in Montreal, spoke about his work and about the clients he serves – who have become like his “extended family.” This interview was distilled from that discussion.
TAP: When we first toured the centre, it was remarkable to see the beautiful stained glass, the worn wood floors, and so many folks sleeping on the pews!
DC: Yes, well, a typical night outside for our clients involves moving from place to place – inside a bank vestibule, a few hours in Tim Horton’s, then moving on. By the time they come to us mid-morning, they are really tired!
TAP: Who are your clients?
DC: We have a significant number of Inuit folks, who have ended up down here partly because this is the place northerners are sent to see specialists, and some of them end up staying. We also have a really high percentage of people that have mental illness, but are not held in an institution and so they’re like just two steps below having to be held somewhere, or people who have mental illness but it’s not diagnosed. But it keeps them back from living well, or others will have mental illness but they’ll self-medicate with street drugs – and you know how that would go. One of our big roles is to help them find a sense that there’s something worth fighting for and you can then fight for a different life. It’s a process.
TAP: How did you end up in this beautiful place, formerly the worship space of St. Stephen’s?
DC: Well several years ago, a group left St. Stephen’s (an evangelical parish). The group that left wanted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada and join the Anglican Network – but it was the most amicable “church split” I’ve ever known! So the breakaway group, Emmaus Fellowship, continued to run the Open Door, renting the space from St. Stephen’s, which no longer needed such a large worship space. And so the mission to Montreal’s homeless has continued!
TAP: When does your day start?
DC: I’m there at 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. or so, 5 days a week. We serve a hot lunch to about 125 people, and hand out supplies like hygiene items, and a lot of socks and underwear!
TAP: Why is the Open Door called a “wet shelter”?
DC: It means a client can come in intoxicated. Some shelters won’t allow that, but we do. We try not to turn anyone away.
TAP: Are there some people that you don’t allow in in order to protect the vulnerable people in your midst?.
DC: We have protocols in place to ensure that the vulnerable are not victimized within the centre. This is a subject that is regularly discussed in the daily debrief with staff.
TAP: What are the “drugs of choice” in the neighbourhood?
DC: Crack and alcohol. They’re cheap. There’s also heroin, but it’s much less common. It’s not easy to get someone off crack. Basically the normal process is a person goes to detox to get the drugs out of his system, then to rehab, to learn to live without the drugs, and then joins a support group – living without the drugs in society. That’s often the path. But others take a different path: sometimes people would just go straight to a support group and won’t do detox or rehab.
David Chapman, second from left, is Director of Open Door, while Zack Ingles, David Smith and Peter Hackman have all volunteered at the Montreal day shelter. (Photo: Doreen Thornhill)
There’s a guy who comes around and he’s sort of a “volunteer-at-large” and he was one of the most die-hard alcoholics at the centre, to the point where he would go five days straight not eating, just drinking, not changing clothes. And about every two weeks he’d get picked up by an ambulance, and then just repeat, repeat, to the point we would wonder would he be dead this year, or in six months – how long was he going to make it? Then one day his sister became really ill and went into the hospital and went back home and she needed someone to care for her. And he decided he was going to go and care for his sister. We wondered how this was going to work out! Well, there was something about the existential meaning, but he went home and he showed up two months later and he hadn’t been drinking. And then all of a sudden he started going to AA every morning in the building behind us, and now he’s two years sober and he comes in every week to volunteer and to take clothes to people. And now you wouldn’t recognize him – he looks different head to toe. There were certain social workers who saw him after this and you could see when they looked at him, their theories of social work crumbling. He had been an alcoholic for decades--it was really something and it still is. I’ll introduce you.
TAP: Tell us about some of the programs you run to get people off of the street.
DC: We have some really cool programs. We have two caseworkers, they’re out helping people find apartments because we have a program where we’re moving people with addictions literally off of the sidewalk, right into an apartment. And this is an experiment, meaning normally you don’t do that.
TAP: To see if housing helps them get better?
DC: Yes, to see if housing them will help them substantially with the addiction issues they face, as well as historical trauma. Which is something that many face as well – both from within their own families, as well as things like residential schools. And it’s already working. We already have ten people in apartments since January; we’ve also had our first eviction already.
TAP: What other programs help them move back into a healthier life in society?
DC: We have a back-to-work program that helps people move off of welfare and back to the world of work. And so right now in the centre, there are four people in this program. Say for example, you’ve just come out of prison, or you’ve been living on the street for five or six years, if you want an apartment or a job, you need a reference that’s current. You don’t have one. So you’re not going to get the apartment or that job, because you don’t have that first person to vouch for you. So we will hire them, knowing they are in a questionable category, and they will work for us, and we will be their first reference.
More creatively, we’ve recently started a program where we try and use the people in the centre to actually do the functions of the centre. So instead of having all the homeless people over here, and all the professionals over there in two separate camps, we’ve blended that. It won’t be this way while your mission group is here. But on a normal day, the people who are making the food for the homeless will be the homeless. So up on the stage, where the food preparation normally happens, you’ll see five different homeless guys sitting around, chopping the cucumbers for the salad. Or they’ll be scooping the peanut butter and jam into the little cups for breakfast the next day, or getting clothing items for people, or running the front desk.
And it’s kind of comical because sometimes you’ll have the person running the front desk in the morning, then they’ll slip out midday and they might drink a little too much, come back in, get into a fight with someone and be kicked out by the end of the day…and so it’s rare that you’d see such a fluid environment, but there’s very much a method to that. Part of recovery involves the sense of dignity. And one of the ways you get a sense of dignity is you try doing something that’s worthwhile. And so when you actually make some sort of contribution to the people around you, and then you see how that feels, it reminds you that there is a different way of living other than just the rush of drugs and then having to deal with the downside, which is when the rush of the drugs runs out.
TAP: Are any of your programs tailored especially to your Inuit clients?
DC: We actually have a program where we help Inuit folks who are in really bad shape on the street move back North. For example, there was a woman who was addicted to crack and her boyfriend was a pimp – not a good situation. They were sleeping out behind the centre. So finally she decided she had had enough, overdosed on someone’s prescription medication and ended up in the ICU. Then she came and spoke to me in the office and said basically “I’m going to leave this life one way or the other. So what I’d like to do is get out of here and go back to my home community.” So okay, how are we going to do this? So I said, “Well do you have someone you used to work for back up there?” She said “Yup…” And she gave me his name and we called him up, and he gave her her job back right over the phone! These small communities can be like this. And so we researched a place for her to live with a friend, and then we called the Inuit corporation, Makivic, which owns two airlines and asked for a ticket. You see, now you have an argument. You have someone in a desperate situation. And she has a job she can return to and a place to live in the North – all she needs is a ticket. So Makivic bought her ticket, then I picked her up behind the centre one night about 4:30 in the morning and we drove to the airport. And within a week she was back at work and living with her kids. And she did have a long period of sobriety. She’s got more work to do, but there’s been significant development. And often people will stop using, but they won’t join a support group, and in the long term that can be dangerous because you’re more vulnerable to return to the pattern of addiction. But she made incredible headway. And that was the beginning of a method. Because now we send someone every month, same method. Last year we sent ten people back North.
TAP: Can you say a bit more about your partnership with Makivic?
DC: Basically, they have let us know that they are aware that in Montreal the Open Door is really helping the city’s Inuit population, and so they are very supportive. They help in really practical ways – I already mentioned the tickets; another time they sent us a whole seal and we chopped the entire thing up. There were Inuit ladies who had their traditional tools, and they just thoroughly enjoyed themselves and a meal of country food. Our other support comes from around 200 individuals and a couple of foundations, about ten different churches of all varieties, and they contribute financially but also as volunteers during holiday season, as well as with goods throughout the year. We always need donations – and you guys brought lots of socks and underwear. Our sorting lady downstairs said “They knew what to bring!”
TAP: Do you get opportunities to pray with people?
DC: All the time. And it’s usually the Inuit people who are the most religious. They’re the ones who use the kneelers, they’re the only ones who ever go anywhere near the altar, and they’re the people most likely to ask you to pray for them. And we also have a fellow who comes in and does a Morning Prayer service on Mondays at 10:00. We’ve just started this. It doesn’t attract a big crowd, but slowly over time we’ll see where it goes.
TAP: How do you deal with the conflict and violence that must occur?
Student volunteers CJ Smith (closest in photo) and Shyla Thornhill peel potatoes at the Open Door. (Photo: Tracey Smith)
DC: Part of my strategy is to keep the ones that are most volatile the closest. And that’s for the security of everyone else. There will be conflict – guaranteed – while you’re here for the next three days. But don’t worry, just keep to yourself and don’t run up and try to intervene and you’ll be absolutely fine. But we on staff do step in right away. It looks like the most chaotic environment, but it is very calculated. There are three secrets to dealing with conflict. First, know everyone’s name. So that’s my job – to get to know everyone in the centre. This is helpful to help them move past addiction, but it’s also helpful when it comes to conflict. If you have a relationship with someone and they know you’ve gone the extra mile for them, found them an extra pair of pants, or a snack, or whatever they’re looking for, when it comes time that they’re livid and they want to lose it on someone, you show up and you call them by name, and put your hand on their shoulder and ask them to stop. And out of respect for you, four times out of five that will be the end of the conflict. So most conflicts end peacefully – but we had two physical conflicts last week. So that’s the first secret – just know people’s names, and treat them like human beings. Then the second point is proximity. Normally there’s another worker and myself who intervene in conflicts – we are always watching, surveying what’s going on. Third, we have a short list of people who are known to be volatile when they’re intoxicated. We just stick really close to them. So basically they would be my best friend when they walk in intoxicated. I’ll put my arm around them, they’ll scream in my ear, spit in my face when they’re speaking really loud, and that’s for the sake of everyone else in the room. We’ve never had a volunteer get decked – it’s not going to happen.
TAP: One of our group this week saw you with a client who came in cursing and really upset. You knelt down and touched his arm and spent a lot of time with him. It was something to see – by the time he left, he was completely calm. How do you keep yourself calm, and work through a situation like that?
DC: The first chapter of Jean Vanier’s book, Becoming Human, is helpful here. Vanier explains that often the loudest people are carrying the most pain. They are testing you by screaming and yelling and making a scene. Behind that scene is the question, “Do you love me?” “Can I trust you?” “Will you be there for me, or will you run away?” Often after many such episodes, Vanier explains, the person will calm down and a real relationship will begin.
TAP: When you get in between people, have you been hurt?
DC: Oh yeah, you do get occasionally kicked or punched, but not seriously. You pay attention, it’s important to pay attention.
TAP: Don’t you get burnt out?
DC: The new housing project is a stressor, and there’s just the ongoing stress of navigating homeless people through the dramas of the month. But you know, it’s okay, you get used to finding some outlets for stress. So for me, I try to get out and run, or cycle hard, on a regular basis and blow off some steam. I like to barbecue, do things at home, just natural human goods, spend some time with my family. But you have to be intentional and I have to make sure that I don’t get drawn into speaking at this function or that function, because if you don’t have a couple of days off a week, you will become a basket case. And one of the things we’ve started doing this last year is a mandatory debrief for all of the staff. At the end of every day we just sit down for about 45 minutes and talk about every single issue that happened that day. It’s interesting work.
TAP: I guess you don’t get bored.
DC: No. There are lots of good stories – positive ones. The challenge though is that for every positive story, there are quite a few incidents that keep you up at night. And the truth is almost every night I have some sort of Open Door nightmare. That’s the truth.
TAP: Does it feel like you’re in the place you should be, that this is your work?
DC: Yeah! We didn’t see this at all, coming to Montreal. This was not the plan.
TAP: You sure look like you’re in your element there.
DC: This is my favourite job ever, really. And it’s like my extended family. You get to know the people and you get to know some of the things you wish you didn’t know, but they really look out for you too. I have really touching moments. Sometimes I’ll have conflicts where there will be a couple of homeless people who get really worked up, and two other homeless people jump in the way just so that I don’t get hit. And you see stuff like that, and you realize, you’re working with really some pretty wonderful human beings.
TAP: And they know you care about them.
DC: Yeah, and one of the most rewarding things is when you see people who’ve really been through hell make some positive step forward, and you know you’ve played some small part in that – that’s a high honour. TAP
The Open Door welcomes donations. David Chapman can be contacted by email at email@example.com.