When Steel James MacDonald began taking daily walks for his mental health at the start of the pandemic, he noticed the streets of downtown Montreal were mostly empty — save for the apparent growing number of people experiencing homelessness.
"Every time I took a walk, I'd see more and more people on the corner of streets and more and more tents set up everywhere," the Vanier College student said.
He said after speaking to a man experiencing homelessness, who told him the lack of foot traffic and pocket change was hitting the community hard, MacDonald knew he had to take action.
Thus Welfare Avenue was born — a student-run, non-profit organization that hands out food, hygiene products and clothing to people experiencing homelessness in Montreal.
"We started off just me and a friend cooking and gathering all the stuff to give ... then basically more people saw, Vanier got involved and more students came," said MacDonald, founder and executive director of the organization.
The group sets up a tent every weekend outside of the Berri-UQAM Metro station to distribute basic necessities and feed hundreds of people at a time.
"These people didn't have enough support and there's more and more of them on the streets," MacDonald said.
"Without organizations like Welfare Avenue, they wouldn't be able to get the basic support that they need."
'Mutually fulfilling relationship'
Since its small start two years ago, the organization has amassed a list of about 500 student volunteers.
The list includes Melissa Mukeza, who recently moved to Montreal from Rwanda. She joined as a way to give back to the community, something Mukeza says she's felt a need to do her whole life.
"I think it's something that's very basic to me ... it's something that feels natural," she said.
Mukeza said the people coming to the tent for support each weekend are "happy and grateful" for the group's work, but they aren't the only ones who benefit from it.
"When we're doing actions that look altruistic to others, I think most people don't realize the action itself is fulfilling to the person that's doing it," she said.
"It's a mutually fulfilling relationship."
MacDonald is now looking forward to growing his team even more, expanding throughout the island of Montreal and other schools, and one day creating a national project.
"Students get valuable experience when they talk with the people [experiencing homelessness] there ... and it brings a lot of happiness," he said.