Nearly a year ago, a warming tent constructed in honour of Raphaël “Napa” André, an Innu man who died in Milton Park in January 2021, was shut down due to a lack of federal funding. Now, two years after André’s passing, services are reopening in his honour, with a bigger shelter that can accommodate double the number of clientele overnight.
The shelter is named the “Mitshuap Raphaël ‘Napa’ André” – “mitshuap” means “house” in Innu-aimun.
“My team never gave up,” said Tehawennake Diabo, one of three Kahnawa’kehró:non currently working at the shelter. “They hustled for months, and we were able to get a lease on a building which fits more people. The tent in Cabot Square slept 15 people; our building now fits 30 beds.”
The newly-established shelter is a lifeline for folks living on the street, who face harsh winter temperatures with little support for housing and other resources. For Diabo, shifts are long and busy, and he never stops moving.
“We get there at 7:30 p.m. and set up tables and beds and make sure all the food is ready to be served and everything is clean,” he explained. “We then open the doors at 8 p.m. for people, and we serve whoever comes in food and offer a warm place to stay.”
When André was found in winter 2021, his body was discovered in a public toilet stall that had been placed at the intersection of Milton Street and Park Avenue, mere steps away from The Open Door shelter that serves unhoused folks in the area.
Diabo hopes that shelter projects like this can prevent other people being subject to the same inhumane conditions André was – particularly since Mitshuap Raphaël “Napa” André accommodates clients who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unlike many other shelters in the city.
“Some come to just eat, some need a warm place to stay, and some come to sleep. We give out clothes if they need. We offer a table to sit at, a warm area, coffee,” he explained. “We just make sure we are their safe place. Our main focus is to get the Native population fed and off of the streets, but we welcome everyone, regardless of who they are.”
For many unhoused folks, a lack of safe sleeping space means that a good night’s rest is nearly impossible to find. With little to no sleep and a dire instability of healthcare and social services, it can be difficult for them to get back on their feet. Diabo explained that helping people get adequate rest in a safe, clean space is a big part of the project.
“Once the people are off to sleep we just make sure everything is good and there are no problems,” he said. “We wake them up at 7 a.m., and we give them a snack to eat for breakfast, and once everyone is gone we start to clean up. We wash the floors, sweep, clean the tables, clean the bathrooms, the kitchens, and the beds. And then we lock up and do it again the next day!”
Diabo used to work at the Cabot Square tent, after deciding to try out shelter work, after years spent as a line cook. He wanted to try something different, particularly something related to the social issues he cares about. After a month on the job, he knew he was there to stay.
“I ended up loving it, and here I am, still enjoying every minute of it,” he said. Though there’s some challenges, it’s all worth it. “It’s a big adjustment having to flip your whole schedule to stay up from 7:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. I’ve been doing night shifts for almost two years now, and I still haven’t fully gotten used to it. But the best part is serving the community and giving them a place to stay. It’s a wholesome feeling.”
The shelter has been a safe haven for folks living on the street, but it could be set to close in a matter of months, unless alternative funding can be secured.
“Our funding is supposed to run out on May 1, 2023,” explained Diabo. “That means we are set to close on May 1, 2023 – but we’re actively searching for more funding to be able to continue to operate and serve the community.”
Currently, funding comes from the Innu Nation, though workers at the shelter hope that a more long-term funding source can be secured, which will finally provide a permanent place of sanctuary for unhoused Indigenous people in Montreal.