Homeless Women in Montreal: An Interview with Ann-Gaelle Whiteman from the Dahlia Centre

Couverture La rue se durcit_0         Last week, the government of Quebec announced a new policy to which the homeless solidarity network in Quebec responded positively in most parts. Amelie Phillipson from the CKUT’s community news collective, spoke with Ann-Gaelle Whiteman who works at the Dahlia Centre that provides, accommodation, support and guidance to homeless women.  Thanks to Alejandro Hernandez for the transcription.

CKUT: Hi, Ann-Gaelle.  First of all, can you talk about what gets women on the streets of Montreal.  How do they lose housing and end up in this situation?

AGW: At La Rue des Femmes, we don’t see it as ending up in that situation… it’s a lot more complicated than that.  Actually, we see it as a matter of relational health.  Women on the street right now are women that went through a lot of abuse, neglect when they were children… and a child in order to survive from the neglect and trauma from parents or other people around them, disconnect themselves, the brain disconnects the mantle from the physical (that’s the only way they can survive).  So for us, when those situations repeatedly happen, we say that the child is completely disconnected inside. And that’s where homelessness starts actually and after that if it continues in their lives, then it’s just a matter of time before they end up in the streets because inside they are already lost.

CKUT: Can you elaborate a bit on the concept of relational health, what is it?

AGW: The concept of relational health is the capacity of everyone to be in relation with themselves and others.  If you don’t learn to be in relation with your own self, then you cannot relate to others in society.  So it’s really hard for them to learn to behave in a normal way, and they always behave according to their survival instincts.  So the relational health is like having a broken leg, and you ask somebody to walk on that broken leg… the person will limb and be in pain.  Homeless men and women have a broken relational health.  When that relational cord is broken, that is when homeless women’s behavior tends to turn violent, using escape mechanisms such as drug consumption to deal with the pain.

CKUT: What kind of dangers are women confronted to when living on the streets?

AGW: Well, it’s extremely dangerous.  They are raped, beaten up, which forces them to hide, sleep in parking lots, metros.  Often times, whenever they cannot get into a shelter, they walk all night, never remaining on the same spot, to avoid being preyed upon.  They choose more frequented streets, again to avoid attracting attackers.  They are often beaten and then robbed of their welfare stipend early in the month.  Even during the day, you can cross homeless women everywhere, some of them easily recognizable from their shaggy clothes or apparent mental illnesses… but many others are less obvious to spot, as they are stroll in malls, nicely dressed… one would never guess that they are homeless.

CKUT: Can you give a number of homeless women in Montreal?

AGW: It’s very very hard… I know with the new policies in homelessness, they will try to come up with a realistic number… a couple of years ago they were talking about 38,000 homeless in Montreal.  And I think more than one in three are women.  But the number is growing, we are more than 38,000 homeless right now, and there are more and more women, older women too, reaching their 80s.

CKUT: You mentioned the recent national policy.  Can you talk a bit about that?

AGW: Well, I would say that when they closed all the psychiatric institutions, the paper that they came up with was beautiful… once reality set in though, we saw everything that was missing and that never took place.  We are happy for those policy initiatives… I am just hoping that we’ll see the results… and in action, in potential and in tools we can use in an everyday situation.  The reality is big, a big number of people are involved… something needs to be done.  I am hoping that it won’t just be nice on paper, and that something will come out of it, and that the money will go no so much into research, but in tools and resources that professionals can use to help them.

CKUT: What can be those tools and resources?

AGW: More money for shelters.  There aren’t enough shelters to house homeless women.  In the area of health, more medical support is needed such as psychiatrists.  Housing alone wouldn’t solve the problem… many wouldn’t be able to maintain an apartment.  Medical interventions and so on.  A typical stereotype is the one of the person losing their home, their family ties and succumbing to homelessness.  However, we do not lose the capacity to rebound and start over after a loss.  A new life of reprioritizing objectives must be made available to the homeless.  A new job, a new place to live allows one to get out of the street.  But homelessness goes deeper that that… it is an issue of relational health, mental and physical health.

CKUT: Thank you for emphasizing that side of things.  Can you talk about la Rue des Femmes and more specifically about the Dahlia center for which you work?

AGW: La Rue Des Femmes is a “ressource d’hebergement”, so we receive the women… it’s a shelter, equipped with 20 rooms as well as emergency beds for up to 48 hours.  We have a day center where we can provide meals, clothes, activities for the women… the ones that spent the whole night walking for lack of shelter can come to rest for the day, sleep a little bit.  Then we have the Dahlia centre, which has 12 apartments where the women can live for a period of up to 2 years, an ideal setting for reconnecting with their stability, and re-integrating part of society and the working environment.  With ongoing help, these women can attempt moving to an apartment and maintaining it.

CKUT: How do you help them reconnect with their stability?

AGW: Well first we help them reconnect with themselves, since relation to themselves appears to be broken.  It takes a long time and a lot of patience… but once they do start reconnecting with themselves, they start realizing the painful connections they harbored from the past, bringing back the trauma they once experienced with significant others.  Love, trust, opening oneself to be vulnerable and accept help from others… these are concepts that may take up to 7 years for homeless women to reintegrate into their lives.  I have to say that sometimes, some cases can be compared to small physical injuries, while others may feel as though they were handicapped… no amount of “physical therapy” will give a handicapped person the ability to walk again.  Some of our women are in that situation… but it isn’t a reason to deny them help and to provide them with a roof and meals, safety, love and respect.

CKUT: One last question: how can people get involved if they wish to help?

AGW: Well we have a website where you can make donations.  All donations help the house prepare activities, provide food and so on… we also do welcome volunteers, but not as intervention work.  Our volunteers are wonderful, they help with the dishes, coat check, and other organizational tasks.  Working with the women requires experience and expertise, so not everyone can work in this capacity.  Mostly it is the monetary donations that maintain the programming of the house.  We are also opening a new house, our third, planned for this September.

CKUT: Where is it going to be (the house)?

AGW: On Wolfe street, it’ll only serve for emergency beds for the 24-48-72 hours format, since there is a shortage of shelters for women in Montreal.  We hope it will release all other emergency beds in shelters that are overbooked right now.

CKUT: Ann-Gaelle, thank you very much for your time.

AGW: You’re very welcome!  And thank you for having me on your show.



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