Mile-End Community Mission: Lending a hand in dignity
by Marc Ouimet for the Corporation de développement communautaire Action Solidarité Grand Plateau (CDC-ASGP)
It’s a sunny afternoon, a soft-grey cat is sleeping under the hot rays and two guys are playing “Honky Tonk Blues” on guitar. A simple space, basic ,a few tables, piles of clothes stacked on shelves and a big kitchen in the back. The Mile-End Community Mission came to life in the neighborhood in 1991 and since then, it caters to the most basic necessities of those in need: food and clothes.
Poverty is still very present in our Plateau, often perceived as wealthy and trendy to the point of forgetting reality: poverty exists. Today, the Mile-End Mission serves over 6,600 meals per year and distributes 200 bags of grocery per week to its members. The Director of the Mission, Linda (Lou) Hachey, in her own words:
“Numbers have considerably increased in the last years and the economic crisis has had an impact on those in need with regards to finding or keeping a job. Many of our clients – actually the majority – are on social welfare and suffer from additional problems. Many of those problems are associated to chronic poverty deriving from mental or physical health issues, isolation, vulnerability, addiction, illiteracy. We also cater to the elderly who have specific health problems, as well as to the homeless.
Gentrification and uprooting
Before it became such a trendy neighborhood, the Mile-End was a rather popular, multiethnic and affordable neighborhood. Because of the numerous condo projects and high rent increase in the last fifteen years, the image of the Mile-End has changed drastically. Many people facing poverty had to leave their apartment; consequently, family and social networks were dismantled, affecting their quality of life. Those who managed to stay in the Mile-End have less support; hence, the important role of the Mission in providing a space to create roots and give a sense of social belonging.
Despite everything, poverty remains, even if less visible. Joanne Racette, the Mission’s volunteer organizer of community art workshops, remembers: “What we had here, years ago, in the Mile-End, were ordinary restaurants where people could grab coffee for cheap or get toast and cheese for 2$! Those restaurants have all gone, one by one.”
According to Linda (Lou) Hachey, the majority of poor people had to move out unwillingly out of the neighborhood, although pockets of poverty still remain, such as close to the viaduct near the train track, or close to Park Extension; here and there, room-and-board houses. “There aren’t many affordable places to live anymore, but the need to and to feel part of a network is omnipresent. That’s exactly what we do here at the Mission: provide free coffee, free meals – just like a “center of gravity”.
Solidarity and Leadership
Beyond providing basic needs, the Mile-End Mission is also a network of help and support where its members have a front-stage role. Since the actual staff at the Mission is minimal in number, the organization relies on the indispensable work of its volunteers to help out in the community kitchen, with food banks, the friperie Joyce, community art workshops and musical activities. For many people who are in difficult situations, this community provides vital services while respecting their dignity and their need to belong. As a matter of fact, many of our members end up choosing to lend a hand at the Mission. In her own words, Linda (Lou) Hachey:
“Some people say that the ppor are lazy. My God! They are the ones who keep up this place! Just have a seat here and watch them go: they’re always doing something, whether it be moving stuff around, cooking, preparing. This community really cares about its members, about each other. One of our members who does volunteer work in the food bank program once told us that he goes accordingly to the “army approach”: one never leaves another behind. Here, we won’t leave anyone remain hungry.”
People here help each other. If someone is having trouble with social welfare, someone else will come and let me know about it so that I may go speak to them. We also have members who volunteer to accompany other members to government offices if they need to replace their ID cards, whether they were lost or stolen. Those same volunteers might also help other members find an apartment in the neighborhood, etc. Everyone lends a hand here; everyone’s a leader… far from being lazy!”
“How can I make ends meet with only 604$ per month, with rental cost and food prices? The first three days are easy. It’s the following 27 which are difficult!” says one of the Mission members. There are no miracles: being creative and helping each other out. “The skills required to manage one’s life in poverty, or else to make one’s way out of poverty, are enormous and often underestimated,” adds Linda (Lou) Hachey.
How is it possible to avoid an increase in dispersion of the poor? According to Linda (Lou) Hachey:
“Poor people need more social housing integrated in their own neighborhood. The affordable apartments in which they lived previously are no longer accessible to them. I know it’s impossible to go back in time, but let’s at least try to reestablish that sense of belonging to a community, that feeling which has disappeared. I would also like to add that those people need a decent, livable income.”
As I was out, I glance back at the window, red neon against a black backdrop, a heart… in all simplicity. Open to all those in need, yet exuding a “joie de vivre”. A Mission straight from the heart. A mission of action and solidarity. I’m all smiles for the rest of the day.
Life stories: Four generations of volunteers at the Mile End Mission