First stop

Par Jessica Murphy le 26 juin 2008

On a late sunny May afternoon, Henri-Charles Baudot sat in Place Émilie-Gamelin, wrapped in a scarf to recover from a spring cold, and spoke about his experiences helping vulnerable people in the area.

Baudot is the coordinator for First Stop, a joint venture between the Montreal YMCA, Dans la Rue, Passages, and the Central Bus Station. Located in the station, in consists of an unassuming booth and five staff – two who work full-time.

Its mandate is simple: inform and refer vulnerable travelers to organizations that can provide them with necessary assistance.

“We have a mandate, and after that we have a field. It’s a battlefield. No. Well, sometimes yes, it’s a battlefield between bad influences and where we are trying to protect people from those influences,” Baudot said.

The staff is equipped with an extensive list of shelters, hostels, and support services, some money for emergencies, some food vouchers  - and experience.

“The tools we use most are ourselves and each other—along with the centers in the Montreal area,” said Charles Goulet, one of the most recent additions to the First Stop team. He takes a moment to step away from his booth and speak to a young boy nearby. What made that boy stand out from the crowd? His facial expression, his youth, his hesitancy “you could see his vulnerability,” said Goulet.

The statistics are telling. Some seventy per cent of the homeless population in the city actually comes from outside Montreal. Of those, 23 per cent arrive by bus. A study by QPIRG-McGill found that 11 per cent of the youth who arrive report their first contact is with a pimp or a drug dealer. And there’s a general acknowledgement among community organizations working with street people that violence is on the rise. “There’s no tolerance, help, friendship, support. And 10 years ago there was more of that,” Baudot said.

First Stop was created in 1999, when the founding organizations noticed the revolving door of vulnerable individuals coming through the station. Over time, First Stop has expanded its work into Berri Square. The staff will often walk through the park a couple of times each day. “I’m not going to try to focus on problems, but I will follow a feeling. Here are people I know, I can say hi, not friends, but faces I recognize,” said Baudot.

“For me what’s important, when we come into the park, is to see who’s here and who’s in difficulty. By coming around the bus station,  sometimes we can follow up with people we’ve seen.”

The descent can be rapid for the vulnerable if they’re not referred to community organizations, hostels, or shelters right away. “It’s possible to learn to smoke, how to use crack, cocaine, how to deal drugs, to steal stuff to make money – it’s not only here, but this park has a long history,” said Baudot. “It can become too late on the street very rapidly. You don’t sleep well, you don’t eat well, your brain starts to go—you become very confused. I feel more unable to help after a certain point. What we see here is not a future; it’s a really strong present. It’s crisis.”

Police station 21 commander Alain Simoneau conceded that drugs, especially crack, were being dealt in the park. “There’s a lot of that there,” he said. Many of those receiving assistance have substance abuse problems, mental health conditions, or have been victims of assault. Forty per cent of the clients are under 25-years-old.

First Stop has also developed a close ties with the ambulance workers and the security guards who work in and around the station. “It’s a great collaboration,” said Gaetan Beaulieu, a guard at the station. “The value I see in their presence, they really keep an eye out and aren’t afraid to leave their kiosk and dive into a situation.”

The YMCA community program also has some of the most direct contact, in terms of numbers, with  the transients. The staff speaks with roughly 29,000 people each year. Of those, over 1,000 will use their services. And the spring and summer months see an influx of vulnerable people coming into Montreal from the regions, struggling to find their place.

“It’s not us who do the real work, it’s them,” said Goulet. “No one can help them, no organization. It’s really up to them. (We) focus on prevention. When we see someone who’s at risk, we can give them that little nudge in the right direction.”

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