On this Thursday at 1:15 p.m., as happens every Thursday afternoon, an odd group meets in the offices of a charity just across the street from the new CHUM mega-hospital.
By Colin McGregor
They are priests and nuns, former homeless persons and ex-cons, Buddhists and Muslims, transgender and straight, depending on the week. All are given a name tag at the front door by a Jesuit novice who works as an intern for the Présence Compassion charity.
Everyone sits in a circle. Judith Poulin enters the room with a broad smile and her clipboard. She gives a little pep talk, then assigns everyone in the room a task.
Then the convoy starts. Tables, food and a tent are brought from the office to a spot beside the Berri-UQAM metro station entrance.
This is Parc Émilie-Gamelin, a place so notorious for its drug dealers and drifters that many who come up before a judge are given a condition that they are not to enter the park. It is also a place for street fairs and cultural shows, as the city is trying its best to make the park a safe and attractive place to visit. But it is often not terribly safe.
The volunteers and staff of Présence Compassion set up “La table des invités” (the guests’ table) underneath the big tent with the name of the charity plastered on it.
It is a mild fall day with sprinkles of rain. A lineup has already formed. At 2 p.m., the needy denizens of the park politely file by, taking their coffee, sandwiches and desserts in hand to consume nearby. There is laughter and polite chatter.
“A Calling from God”
The charity is 20 years old this year. It was founded by Judith’s husband Daniel Paradis, 50. Aside from the Thursday handouts, they also conduct one-on-one social work and counselling with some of the aimless, troubled people who wander Ste. Catherine Street East.
“Sometimes, if someone wants to take steps to alleviate their situation, they are brought back to the office to make phone calls or work on the computer,” Paradis says. But more often than not, Paradis goes out into the street to meet with the homeless and the addicted.
“It’s a calling from God,” Paradis says in sober tones. “I felt a calling to help the poor when I was age 4.” Growing up in Abitibi, a 7-hour drive from Montréal, he asked his parents to bring a poor person into their home for Christmas. His parents said no, but the calling remained.
A diploma in social work and a certificate in theology later and Paradis was ready to follow his heart. “I broke up with my girlfriend of five years and moved to Montréal.” He loved the city. “For a country kid I felt good,” as he puts it.
His Présence Compassion worked with the local Catholic parishes, and at one point had a team of social workers patrolling Parc Émilie-Gamelin. Budget cutbacks reduced the charity’s scope.
They suspended their activities completely in March of 2020 for the same reason everyone suspended everything – COVID-19. Présence Compassion stayed shut for 16 months. During that time, Paradis says, they lost the bulk of their funding, from the Notre-Dame Catholic Parish. The Parish got most of its discretionary spending money from tourists visiting the famous Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. No American tourists, no money.
Paradis admits that they’ve had to scramble for interim funding, but they’ve found enough to get through at least another year. “We had other people to prop us up,” he says. “Our other partners came through.”
Their offices are rented at a reduced rate from a dentist whose practice is on the first floor. Dr. Jean Monat is taking up where his father left off in terms of social involvement by letting Présence Compassion stay in the floors above his dentist’s practice for a charitable rent.
Thursday in the Park
Out at Parc Émelie-Gamelin, things are going relatively smoothly. Many of those who receive handouts are regulars at the tables. The atmosphere is convivial, like a weekly get-together among friends. News is exchanged between the itinérants, as they are called in French. A volunteer takes a cellphone snapshot of three smiling regulars arm-in-arm.
One man tries to butt into from the end of the line and complains when Paradis, who works de facto security these Thursday afternoons, talks softly to him and directs him to the end of the line. The park is rarely without police officers very nearby, so the dispensers of charity feel safe in numbers.
I take a sandwich across the street to a large grey-bearded man lying under several blankets on the side of an abandoned building. He is sociable, chatting with people in the neighborhood who know him by name. He says he just woke up and is asked if he’d like some coffee with his sandwich. One giant paw of a hand holds up a Colt-45 malt liquor. “This is my coffee for the day,” he says with a sigh.
One volunteer, with a clicker, counts the number of people who come by for food and drink. At a quarter to 3 people are allowed back in line for seconds if they wish, and many wish on this day.
Many of the clientele know the people serving them, and not just from their name tags. “When a homeless person becomes a volunteer,” Paradis notes, “it’s like the fruit that ripens. They come back to the streets to help people.”
One volunteer is tasked to pass out little pieces of bread-shaped paper with Bible verses printed on them. “The pastoral and the social aspects are equally important,” Paradis says. “God is always in the equation.”
When 3 p.m. rolls around, the few sandwiches that remain are distributed to passers-by around the park. The Présence Compassion team start rolling up their tent and folding tables. A portable garbage bin is rolled back to the office along with empty containers and other paraphernalia.
Back at the office there is a debriefing. The volunteers sit in a circle and talk about their day. The tall, thin man with a clicker announces that 87 people were served, not including repeat customers. There is a polite round of applause. One volunteer observes that with the current trend of young people wearing torn jeans, it is near impossible to tell the poor apart from the wealthy.
Paradis, playing guitar, sings “Happy Birthday” to a volunteer, and everyone sings along.
The debriefing is over. Everyone goes home.
But it will all happen again in a week’s time.
For the moment, during the Omicron wave, the Thursday afternoon handouts are being conducted away from the park, in the offices of the charity, on St. Denis. Street. Numbers are reduced. But meetings carry on, because the poor do not go away in pandemic times.
To volunteer, or to make a donation to Présence Compassion: 514-502-9844