On Patrol with the Wolf Pack
Volunteer group hands out food, syringes and inspires hope on the streets of Montreal
Lizzy wielded the belt like a bullwhip, snapping it every few seconds to keep us at bay.
“Leave me alone!”
She flung her wrist and the strap crackled into the damp summer night.
“Where did she get a belt?” I thought. We backed off a bit.
“You wanna help me? Find me a quiet place to sleep!”
Ordinarily, Lizzy is quite an agreeable sort. I’ll never forget the eulogy she gave for Marc Crainchuk after they found him dead in a sleeping bag west of downtown. She had mastered an impression of Marc, grimacing like an ogre because “he was grumpy but a good kind of grumpy.” His family laughed. Lizzy was good like that.
But for all her kindness, she also has a temper.
It was on full display Thursday night in Cabot Square. Someone stole her tent and sleeping bag, and now — with all the shelters full and no money in her pocket — it looked like Lizzy might have to spend the night on Atwater Ave.
In between cracks of the whip, she apologized to a kid called Ben, who was handing out Rice Krispie squares with his father to earn a merit badge for Boy Scouts. Her mea culpa didn’t extend to the others in the group.
“Screw the rest of you!” she said.
This put the Wolf Pack street patrol in a tough spot. Calling the cops was out of the question. Their presence would only fuel Lizzy’s anger. On the other hand, if she kept making noise, a passerby might call 911 and the cops would show up anyway.
So the street patrol gave her some space, while their team leader, Karen, called for an emergency psychosocial worker to come mediate.
The Wolf Pack is a group of volunteers that prowl the streets of Montreal two nights a week to make things safer for those who sleep outside. Yes, they hand out socks, blankets, food, clean syringes and menstrual hygiene products, but the bulk of the work is just being there.
“The food is just an icebreaker,” said Karen, who did not want her last name published. “We’re out here to build trust. Because that’s what they’ve lost. They don’t trust the system anymore and with good reason. Most of them have been ticketed by the police for the 'crime' of being homeless, they’re treated like shit when they go to the hospital and some are scared to sleep in a homeless shelter surrounded by strangers.
“Our job is to just keep showing up until we can start building those bridges again. You don’t come out here to judge or coerce people back inside. You just show up, hand out the essentials and you wait until the day they’re ready to be helped.”
Al Harrington, who started the Wolf Pack four years ago, says the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the streets of Montreal. There’s been a marked increase in the number of people roughing it and he’s seeing more folks turn to hard drugs as a coping mechanism.
Harrington, an Ojibwe man who lives on Mohawk territory, has a way of bringing otherwise disparate people together. His group, on Thursday, included two churchgoing seniors, a divorce lawyer, an aspiring Boy Scout, a tattoo artist who calls himself The Phantom of the Dance and an Apple Genius with a neatly cropped beard.
Leading this motley crew was Karen — a warm, chain-smoking woman who’s been volunteering on the streets for years — and Joe — a handyman at the St-Jax Anglican church whose roommate refuses to sleep without all the windows in their apartment open. He’s looking for a new roommate.
They piled food into a wagon in the alley behind St-Jax. Karen rummaged through a pair of backpacks, taking stock of how many condoms, how much lubricant and how many syringes and crack pipes they could hand out that night.
The group was also equipped with pouches of naloxone — a drug that can save someone from dying of a heroin overdose. She told me she’s practiced injecting naloxone on oranges but that she’s never actually had to use it on someone.
“Who here is trained to use naloxone?”
Three people raised their hands.
“What about first aid?”
The same three people raised their hands. The Apple Genius said his training lapsed.
“That’s a lot better than nothing,” she said.
Harrington didn’t want to scare the Boy Scout but he didn’t want to lie to him either.
“You might see people using hard drugs tonight,” he said, pantomiming a syringe into his arm. “But that’s okay. They’re people like you and me. You can stand back or, if they’re okay with it, you can talk to them.”
This is real life, the boy’s father said, patting him on the back.
The group zigzagged through partygoers on Ste-Catherine St. on their way to an alley where some of their regular clients have holed up. Georges, an elderly man, peaked his head out of a homemade tent and smiled. He took a bottle of off-brand Gatorade, some snacks and a pair of socks.
Over on Guy St. we ran into Greg Jones and his greying dog, Nero. I asked if the dog was pregnant.
“Well, no, because the dog has a penis,” he said.
“Oh. So he’s just a little chubby.”
Jones had been wearing the same socks for a few days so he welcomed a couple of new pairs from Karen. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag and let the nicotine seep into his blood.
“That’s better. Don’t worry about the dog,” he told one of the group members. “He’s like a superhero. Defender of the defenceless, attacker of the attackers. If I give someone a high five, he might nip me because he thinks I’m being violent. Right Nero?”
The dog wagged its tail.
Greg used to work the front desk at the Open Door shelter when it was in a church on Atwater Ave. Nero would usually sleep on one of the pews or under the desk. The dog and his master keep each other warm when they sleep outside in the winter. But having a dog also makes it hard for Greg to get a spot in a shelter or rent an apartment.
“These days, I’m just in raw survival mode,” he said. Just then, he saw the Boy Scout and patted him on the shoulder. “Hey buddy! Have a great night. Thanks for coming out.”
The group continued its slog west, squirming through a crowd of college kids outside Moose Bawr. They sipped red and blue cocktails from straws as darkness fell over the city. A few blocks away, smartly dressed couples waited outside an Asian fusion restaurant where craft beer goes for $9 a pint and a helping of deep fried tofu costs much more than you might imagine.
When we came upon Cabot Square, there must have been 50 people milling about. There was a couple who sat in Adirondack chairs, passing a large bottle of Blue Dry back and forth. The woman, Sabrina, called out to Ben the Boy Scout.
“Hey you little munchkin!”
The spot around the Atwater Metro was tame; people sat in a circle, passed a joint and sipped gingerly from cans of beer. But as you went farther into the shadows, things got a lot darker. A half dozen people slept on the steps of a condemned Pentacostal church as two women rode their bicycles up and down the sidewalk.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Not too good,” one of them called back, bunny hopping her bike onto the road.
Louis — the volunteer who goes by Phantom of the Dance — handed out safe injection kits and crack pipes with steel filters. It may not feel like he’s making a difference but each clean needle means a smaller chance that someone will contract hepatitis C or HIV. It also allows the group to keep tabs on who’s hanging out in the park, what kind of drugs they’re using and whether they might be missing.
“Some of these people wouldn’t even accept food from us at first,” Karen said. “But they started to trust us. Eventually, you want them to end up using resources that could save their lives, get them off the streets, maybe get them off drugs. It starts with this first contact.”
Farther into the darkness, Lizzy sat under a tree next to the luxury condo towers emerging on the south side of Cabot Square. When the project is complete, units will sell in the high six figures. Some residents will get a view of Nun’s Island. Others will overlook the people who sleep in tents every night.
I hadn’t seen Lizzy in over two years. Back then, she got out of the street life and stopped hanging around Cabot Square. But when you’ve survived the things Lizzy has, staying sober is an everyday struggle.
Some days the pull of street life is just too strong.
When Lizzy started to freak out Thursday night, I remember feeling a pain in my heart. I remembered running into her at the Atwater food court one afternoon and eating shrimp together. Every so often, she’d interrupt our chat to make faces at a kid a few seats over. He laughed. His parents were mortified.
Lizzy noticed their judgement but pretended not to care.
Now she stalked Cabot Square with a belt and tears in her eyes. I told Harrington that maybe next time she gets sober would be the time she’d get off the streets for good.
“You never know, you never know,” he said. “That’s all you can hope for.”
Hey! Just wanted to put it out there that I was joined by my trusty colleague Joseph Dubois on the patrol and he — as always — represents us Rovers with the utmost care, respect and dignity. Much love, young Joseph!
This week, we wrote about a groundbreaking cannabis deal between Health Canada and the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.
Thanks for reading!