The Rover: Hope in a Hard Place
Amid the worst homelessness crisis in years, a couple gets off the streets of Montreal and into an apartment of their own
Shane Hughes emerged from the gutter with a jump in his step.
Maybe this was the last time he’d sleep under the highway. Maybe this was the first day of the rest of his life. He cracked a smile.
“Hey Nico,” Hughes shouted, motioning for his friend to come over. “I might be going in an apartment but I’m not gonna forget about you. I want you to have this.”
Hughes pointed at the tent he shared with his girlfriend, Lydia. After years of living on the streets, he was ready to leave it all behind. The couple was taking possession of an apartment in Lasalle, a 15-minute drive west of downtown Montreal.
“I’ll clean it out for you and it’s yours,” Hughes said.
Nico jutted out his chin, declaring himself the new landlord of the homeless encampment.
“I guess you can call me Sergakis Holdings now,” said Nico, referring to west downtown’s most notorious real estate magnate. They embraced.
Late one night in May, an axe-wielding man wandered into the camp and hacked at one of Hughes’ friends as he slept. The screams roused Hughes from his sleep and Nico came running, but the assailant disappeared into the night before they could reach him. Though the attack left Hughes’ friend with a gash on his neck, he survived.
Back then, it seemed like a pipe dream that Hughes would end up in a bed with clean sheets and a roof over his head. But a street worker at Resilience Montreal worked tirelessly to find Hughes and Lydia a safe place to stay.
“I cried when I heard the news,” Hughes said. “It’ll be my birthday on the day we move in. I can’t think of a better gift.”
Resilience Montreal is the closest thing some people have to a home. The day centre serves thousands of meals a week and provides a safe place for people to take naps, have a warm shower, hang out and talk to someone who can help them work through their problems. The centre’s housing worker, Joyce, gets about five people off the streets and into their own apartment every month.
After Raphael André froze to death on Parc Ave. last winter, it was the management at Resilience that fought for the city to allow a warming tent in Cabot Square — a park across Atwater Ave. from the day centre. When the winter ended, they pushed for the tent to be converted into an overnight shelter for people who sleep outside.
On Thursday, Resilience Montreal received the Service Recognition Award from Marc Miller, their member of parliament, for the impact they have in Montreal’s Ville Marie borough. The day centre’s manager, David Chapman, looked upon it Thursday and nodded. He stopped one of his volunteers.
“Would you look at that?” he said. “We got something from the government that isn’t a ticket. How about it?”
Chapman put the award back down and pulled out his phone. He opened a text message with a photo of Lydia holding the keys to her new apartment.
“She’s a picture of resilience, man,” Chapman said. “Some people, they have a particular way in which they come to terms with life. Usually, with addiction, it’s detox, rehab, support group. A lot of attempts. She’s sleeping under the bridge in a tent and one day she decides she’s gonna stop drinking.
“It’s at least a couple of months now. She’s coming in here and volunteering every day. Folds the neatest piles of laundry you’ve ever seen in your life. She’s in the process of getting a job at a café and she’s chosen an apartment that’s gonna be big enough so she can get her kids back from youth protection. She’s the sweetest person and yet, I’m telling you, she’s come through more than any of us could imagine.
“I know parts of the story and if I had seen anything similar in my life, I’d be dead. With certainty.”
Baxter Provo passed Chapman and gave him a slap on the back. Eighteen months ago, he was a butcher in southwest Montreal, earning just enough to get by. But when the pandemic hit, he lost his job. Provo wound up spending two months on the street.
“I never thought it could happen to me,” said Provo, a short, handsome man in his 50s. “I used to just come in here, hang out and eat a meal. Then I just realized I could help and so I started to volunteer. I never left.”
Provo is back on his feet, but he never forgot the solidarity he felt from the other unhoused people at Resilience. Last month, he handed out funeral cards and worked as an usher during a memorial service for André in Cabot Square.
“When someone in the community dies, people rally,” he said. “Sadly, people die a lot out here.”
Before the pandemic, there were just a few tents under the Ville Marie Expressway, which is a short walk down Atwater hill from Resilience. But when restaurants, hotels and other service industry staples began to go under, it created a cascading effect, pushing thousands of Montrealers on the brink of homelessness. Many went over the edge.
Today, there are roughly 30 tents under the highway, mostly hidden behind 50-foot concrete pillars so as not to draw attention from commuters or residents in neighbouring Westmount. Hughes and Nico bonded in this makeshift camp.
Both are veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces and both have been on the streets for years. Nico — a sinewy, bearded man with a short crop of hair — served in Afghanistan with the Royal 22nd Regiment. When asked if he still thought about the war, he politely said, “We’ll have to go off the record for that conversation.”
The discipline he learned in the army helps him survive every night and he wears an amulet of Saint Catherine for good luck. Failing that, his dog, Tommy, keeps the camp safe, according to Hughes.
Tommy was tied to a fence post Thursday, barking at passersby. The short-haired, black dog mostly just wanted belly rubs and someone to play with.
“He only gives you little bites when you try to leave,” said Nico. “He wants you to stay and play. He’s a big baby.”
After the axe attack, Hughes said he was told that, in times of trouble, all he had to do was scream Tommy’s name.
“He’d take care of things pretty quick,” said Nico. “But mostly, he just wants love and attention.”
I met Shane Hughes outside a church on Atwater four years ago. His story isn’t uncommon out here: a tough childhood, trauma, addiction and pain that manifests as anger. Back then, he used to take speed at nights and sleep at the church after the sun came up. He didn’t like how vulnerable it felt to rough it on the streets.
Since then, he’s fought the cops, been to prison, been on the streets, slept in the woods outside Angrignon metro after the police cracked down on homeless camps in the city last summer. Now he says he’s ready to move on.
When he left the camp on Thursday, Hughes didn’t walk up Atwater so much as glide. And just as he turned the corner to go back to Resilience, Hughes locked eyes with Lydia. They ran towards each other.
“We’re going home, baby,” he said. “We’re going home.”
There were over 3,000 unhoused people in Montreal as of the last official census on homelessness in 2019. Last year, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said it’s possible that number has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.
Hughes and Lydia’s story is one of thousands. No one knows how it will end. It’s possible that things go south and they wind up back outside again. But it’s also possible they will make it for good this time.
That’s the thing about the streets — as long as you’re alive, there’s hope.
This week, Joseph and I were lucky to have my brother-in-law Bez document Shane Hughes’ story. As you can see, he’s an incredibly talented photographer and you can check out more of his work on Instagram. If you like his stuff, give him a follow. He takes wonderful landscape photos and sells prints as well.
Here he is, with my beautiful niece Isla, who I got to meet for the first time this week. It’s my little sister and Bez’s first child and she’s just as lovable as she looks.
As long as we’re talking about photography, here’s some more photos from our day at Resilience Montreal.
Onto some more business…
This week, we took a look at a clinic that serves people living on the margins. It was inspiring to see a doctor who cares so much about patients struggling with addiction, living with HIV or who just got out of prison and are going through tough times.
I’ll be taking next week off to spend some time with my girlfriend’s family before our baby comes. But I’m always around to answer emails and stuff if you need me.