Building a safe place for homeless

·6 min read

Less than a month after the tragic death of Raphael “Napa” André, an overnight emergency shelter in Montreal’s Cabot Square created in André’s honour welcomed its first visitors.

The memorial temporary tent came to life on Tuesday night, through the strength and outpouring show of support from Onkwehón:we communities.

Three weeks ago, Kahnawa’kehró:non Mary Goodleaf and her husband Bart were following the news like any other day. But when the media started to report on the death of André, the Innu man from Matimekush-Lac John who froze to death inside a portable toilet, Mary simply couldn’t shut the TV off and move on.

On January 17, the 51-year-old man was found in the middle of the night, lifeless and alone only a few steps away from the Open Door Shelter in Montreal. Following safety measures, the shelter was forced to temporarily suspend its nightly operations due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak - also forcing André to hide from the cold in the nearest place he could find.

His death fired up the debate surrounding Quebec’s curfew and the homeless population - which at this point needed to respect it just as much as anybody — but the couple couldn’t sit and wait for the government to react.

“These people are getting forgotten and left in the cold,” said Bart.

The Quebec Superior Court decision on January 27 to exempt people experiencing homelessness from the province’s curfew was perceived as a victory, but one that came in too late for André.

“For him to die in such an undignified manner, to freeze to death because he couldn’t get in the shelter, for me that was enough of a reason why we decided to help out in any way we could,” added Mary.

Once they heard about the mobilization happening in the city to erect a warming tent, an initiative trail-blazed by Resilience Montreal to prevent another avoidable death, the Goodleafs reached out to Nakuset. The executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter and co-manager of Resilience Montreal had been asserting the need for additional warm places to stay since the beginning of the pandemic, but André’s death was the last straw.

“When you look at disasters across the world,” said Nakuset, “when there’s a real need for help, they usually send in the Red Cross and they put up a tent and they help the people.”

The Goodleafs donated over $25,000 to help build the warming tent at Cabot Square, a location that is considered a hub for people experiencing homelessness. The couple, who own the Host Hotel in Kahnawake, among other businesses, explained that while they wanted to remain anonymous at first, coming forward with their donation was a way to initiate a movement.

They said not only they had hoped that the government would come forward once they saw their gesture, but also that their community and the public would step up as well. As the donations gained more and more traction, other community members also started to get involved. As of Saturday, Playground Poker from Kahnawake will donate snack boxes - enough meals for more than 50 people.

“We got several people that reached out and dropped donations,” said Mary. “The community really came together. We had a room full of clothing for the shelter, a bakery in Montreal donated three huge bags of fresh bread. It just showed me how unified the community is when things like that arise.”

The community was able to raise more than $50,000, Mary confirmed on Thursday.

Initially, the monetary donation was meant directly to set up the tent as the initiative was awaiting the city’s approval. Nakuset explained that in just a few days, community members along with different organizations were able to raise more than $15,000 through GoFundMe.

“If we wait for the government to do something, we wait forever,” said Nakuset. “Twenty years that I have been doing this kind of work, I don’t wait. I plow through.”

Earlier last week, the City of Montreal approved the project and paid for the tent, the heating systems and the Adirondack chairs ready to welcome 16 people during curfew hours. The money was redirected to other resources such as emergency food, and paying for accommodations for the staff working long shifts at the tent.

Coming together

As the Raphael Napa André memorial tent stands strong and warm in the depths of the winter, the initiative represents the unification of communities that once again came together out of a horrific event.

“It’s Raphael’s death that has brought the Indigenous communities together,” said Nakuset. “From Innu Nation to Mohawk Nation, all those different people came together to support a population that had really been ignored by the government.”

Nakuset also teamed up with Innu activist Michèle Audette, a former president of Quebec Native Women and one of five commissioners in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

But amidst these impressive titles, Audette was also a second cousin of André.

“I knew him from my time living in Montreal. We laugh and partied together, this wasn’t a stranger,” said Audette. “What happened shocked me up on a deeper level.”

Audette explained that a sentence repeated by Nakuset resonated in her; where was the army? Where were the emergency tents?

The resourceful woman’s first reaction was to work up her contact list and find a tent. She was even ready to head to Montreal, without turning it into a political move. However, she knew the city wouldn’t be too pleased to see an Innu tent erected downtown during the pandemic.

The two powerful Onkwehón:we women spent days and nights on the phone and in online meetings to organize it all with Montreal’s mayor Valerie Plante and other ministers.

“People aren’t afraid of me or Nakuset, but we remind them that even if there are important rules to follow, sometimes we need to innovate,” said Audette.

“That’s exactly what we all did. We set up something that never existed before.”

Audette also called upon intervention workers all the way from Quebec City. Workers from the Maison Communautaire Missinak, an Onkwehón:we shelter, responded to Montreal’s alarming outcry and came to form the backbones of the warming tent’s staff.

“We are bringing solidarity and we are shaking up the ways of doing things,” said Audette.

With its current budget and help from the city, the shelter is set to remain open for the next two weeks, but Nakuset wants more.

André’s memorial highlights the reality of people without homes, a reality that won’t go away once the winter or COVID-19 is over. But for now, it provides to others what André needed the most - a warm place and food.

“We want to acknowledge that we know you’re on the streets and it’s been really hard,” said Nakuset. “Come inside, it’s warm and we’re going to keep you safe. We’re going to listen.”

Virginie Ann, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door