By Salima Punjani
Marie-Pierre Caron left her home in Northern Quebec when she was 15 years old due to difficulties with her family. She felt alone at home, like an outsider that people couldn’t understand. People were pushing her away and she had a hard time making friends. She found solace on the streets of Montreal, surrounded by other homeless youth who didn’t judge her and accepted her the way she was.
After a while, a feeling of heaviness set in. “One day, I got into a situation where I was tired of it,” said Caron. “I had all this weight on my shoulders. Even my backpack was a weight on my shoulders. I was tired and needed help but had been living without help this whole time. I didn’t know where to look. I had no idea. But, then someone told me about Pops.”
Father Emmett Johns, also known as Pops, set up Dans la Rue in 1988 after spending 40 years as a Parish Priest. Dans la Rue started with Pops driving a converted motorhome around the streets of Montreal, providing homeless youth with food, an empathetic ear and a place to warm up. Today, volunteers at Dans la Rue continue to drive a van around the streets of Montreal, but the organization also has an emergency shelter, a day center, apartments, and family services. It also provides an opportunity for youth to engage in the creative arts, including by interacting with music therapists and through access to a music studio.
Caron feels Dans la Rue provides more than just services; she feels it creates a family environment and helps to build dignity and self-acceptance among homeless youth. “Dans la Rue helps you understand you aren’t out of the world; you are a part of the world,” she said. “People look at us like we are normal people, we aren’t different, we are just ourselves. I can be there with you in the restaurant or the metro or a nice place. I don’t stress about being different anymore. I am more able to talk with people even if I don’t look like them. I don’t feel bad about being myself or about others being themselves either.”
Caron is currently living in Dans la Rue’s social housing apartment building that provides 17 apartments to youth and families transitioning out of homelessness. She likes the fact that the apartment is hers, and that she is surrounded by other youth and support workers she got to know through participating in Dans la Rue’s programs and by living on the street. “It’s nice to wake up in the morning, go downstairs to the office and then talk to someone,” said Caron. “The support worker is there so you can have coffee, chill out, you laugh. It’s nice to feel like you have someone to talk to.”
When asked about how the organization works to maintain the dignity of homeless youth, Dans la Rue Executive Director Cécile Arbaud said it is engrained in everything they do. “First, we welcome them as they are, so no judgement at all,” she explained. “We also work with them, we don’t work on them, so they are really part of the process. Then we work with their strengths and not their weaknesses and their past and all the trauma they had, but also their strengths, desires, wishes. In this way, we stimulate their autonomy and accompany them as much as possible. We celebrate their successes.”
Arbaud feels social housing with community support makes a difference in the lives of youth because they aren’t isolated. She explained that in the past, homeless youth tended to live in squats, whereas now they live in a more scattered way, thereby exacerbating social isolation. Further, when youth lived in group homes or in youth protection, they did so in groups not of their choosing, and thus often didn’t learn the social skills needed to deal with others without adult intervention. “Now when they are at their apartment with 16 other youth,” said Arbaud, “they have to deal with their emotions and frustrations.” She added, “We have a lot of community activities, supper, cooking together, things like that, and we have people from the community coming and being with them.”
Although the organization offers a number of services, Arbaud emphasizes the importance of building community partnerships to reduce barriers for youth living in a situation of homelessness or transitioning out of it. “It’s important to help the youth have enough autonomy and confidence to reach out to our community partners,” she said. “We build trust with these partners so when the youth go they don’t feel isolated, they don’t feel stigmatized, and they feel included in the community. We aren’t going to resolve the problem of youth homelessness without the whole community.”
On October 5, 2017, Dans la Rue teamed up with members of Montreal’s corporate community to have the first sleep out for homeless youth. As part of this event, people from different companies slept in a public park and learned about the realities of youth homelessness through the lens of youth that have participated in Dans la Rue’s services. The event raised more than $130,000 to sustain the organization’s services and raised awareness and connections between at-risk youth and the corporate community in Montreal.
Volunteers at the event spoke enthusiastically about their work and the impact it has had on their lives. Erin Maccoubrey has been volunteering with Dans la Rue for almost 6 years and is now an ambassador for the organization. She looks forward to her bi-weekly shift because it allows her to feel connected to other volunteers and to the youth they support. “It’s helping me personally learn leadership skills,” Maccoubrey explained, “but it’s not about me.”
Daniel Kruger, a music therapist working at Dans la Rue, feels that music can give youth living in precarious situations an opportunity to creatively explore and express themselves, develop relationships, and feel vulnerable in a safe space. “A lot of the people who come to the center are in situations very often where they are being told who they are and how they have chosen to live is wrong,” said Kruger. “So the first thing to encourage, and to leave space for someone to feel vulnerable, is to be clear personally and musically that whatever you offer in this space is valid, and we will receive that with love and with open ears.”
Kruger feels music therapy helps the youth to connect to others, but also significantly to their own stories in a free and liberating way. “I have heard youth say at the end of recording a song about their lives or their stories, ‘This is the first time I have been able to express this story, my story, this way.’” Kruger has also seen youth who enter the music room, with no confidence in their musical abilities, transform through interacting with others. “After half an hour they are improvising, speaking with other youth about themselves, listening to other youth about themselves, and the expression expands really quickly to the point where it feels as though a lot of self-discovery is happening in that room for the youth.”
The music therapy program at Dans la Rue gives youth the opportunity to record their own music or someone else’s so they can develop relationships and build self-esteem. “For youth that are having difficulty communicating in other ways, [music is] a way they can build relationships with each other, with the music therapist, and with themselves that is unique and somehow less threatening than just speaking or just filling out documents about their situation and the sorts of bureaucratic processes that they are more used to having to do.”
Kruger feels it is essential to acknowledge the strength and resilience of the youth he works with at Dans la Rue, along with their capacity to be active agents of their own transformation process. “These youth have that strength, these experiences, those stories that are very powerful, and they are given a space at Dans la Rue where they can share them. We don’t really create the transformation so much as offer a place for it to happen, and that is inspiring to see.”
Now that Marie-Pierre Caron is back on her feet, she is fixing up what she calls “a shack in the woods” so that she can work on farms in the countryside and give back to the people that helped her overcome the loneliness and isolation she felt at home. Her dream is to build a refuge with a friend of hers with huskies and horses so that people can come to the forest, take a break, and find peace in nature. It’s her way of giving back to the community and, in the spirit of Pops’ work, spreading more empathy in the world. “It’s important to me and my friend because we have been living this situation where we have to go away. We have always been really close to nature, close to people and how they feel, we have a lot of empathy. I think it’s good to show the people how empathy is good too. If they come to see us they take a break and they feel better, they feel better in themselves. It makes you realize more about life.”