Lyle R. McComber has almost everything he needs at Kwe 55.
His studio apartment is small but sleek; his kitchenette has a stainless steel fridge and new cabinets. The air fryer it came with makes chicken wings so good it’s like they were cooked in a restaurant. “I can even cook a whole chicken in the damn thing.”
He comes and goes as he pleases, feeling at home in a way he never did at Kahnawake’s Independent Living Center (ILC), where he spent 10 years. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. It was hard to live at the ILC because I was having some relapse issues,” he said. At Kwe 55, he feels more control over his own life.
He is still visited by his addictions worker through Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS), a partner in the housing development in the old Rustik Motel just outside Kahnawake’s borders. Chateauguay has several Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings a week, McComber noted, and he attends SMART Recovery sessions online on his old iMac using the facility’s free wifi.
With his rent set at $220 a month, he believes it’s the opportunity he needed to get back on his feet. “Really, you’re here to kind of rebuild your life,” he said. The 45-year-old plans to go back to school and get a degree.
But there’s a problem: McComber has not received a social assistance payment – his only source of income – since July 1, nearly six weeks ago.
Kwe 55, an affordable housing development in Chateauguay for those with low incomes or at risk of homelessness, was pitched as a source of relief for the housing squeeze in Kahnawake, where 35 people are currently on the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) Housing Unit waitlist.
A minimum of five units were set aside for Kahnawa’kehró:non at Kwe 55, which recently opened. Nine community members are already living there, with a 10th moving in soon.
Yet, while the development seeks to house the most vulnerable Kahnawa’kehró:non, the moment they move off the territory they become ineligible to receive financial aid through MCK’s Client-Based Services Unit (CBS), which handles social assistance for the community.
McComber, who moved to Kwe 55 on July 3, had to apply for financial assistance through Quebec after his arrival in Chateauguay, but he is still waiting despite filing on July 9, he said. His application includes a disability component, requiring additional documentation.
Friends have helped him out with food. Without their kindness? “I’d be – excuse my language – but I’d be f*cked because of the government of Quebec,” McComber said.
Kwe 55, operated by the Federation regionale des OSBL d’habitation de la Monteregie et de l’Estrie (FROHME), has cut him slack on his August rent payment; he hasn’t been able to pay it.
He was told the application process for social assistance was supposed to take five to 10 business days, and Quebec’s website promises a notice of decision within five business days of receipt of all documents. Things have not gone so smoothly. McComber even received a letter by mail informing him of a phone appointment that had already passed, he said.
“I mean, it’s almost over a month since I filed. They were giving me reasons – a lot of people filed. I said that’s not my issue. It should be their issue to act accordingly, as far as time goes. I have bills to pay,” he said.
An anonymous source who is linked to another resident at Kwe 55 told The Eastern Door they have reason to believe this person has also so far been unable to access social assistance, leaving them without crucial funds to pay for necessities.
This resident, who could not be reached by The Eastern Door, posted on Facebook that they could not be picked up by medical transport for an appointment despite having mobility issues and walking with a cane. The bus from Chateauguay, the only alternative, leaves passengers a half-hour walk away from Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC).
Kahnawake Medical Transport, operated by the Kahnawake Fire Brigade (KFB), does not transport people from outside the borders of the reserve.
“It’s not part of our agreement with Health Canada to go off the reserve. We could jeopardize our operation by doing that,” said KFB fire chief David Scott, referring to the program’s funding.
He said he will be having meetings to see if an exception can be made for Kwe 55. “That’s on my to-do list now to see if we can do anything about it.”
Some Kahnawa’kehró:non have walked onto the territory from Chateauguay to get picked up, he said.
“Everybody’s situation is different. I’m not telling people to do that. I’m just asking people to give us a little bit of time to wrap our heads around this because this is a new thing that’s going on,” he said. “It wasn’t thought of that people would be needing transport from the old Rustik to appointments.”
There is currently no Kahnawake program to provide a stopgap to community members who have moved to Kwe 55, according to Alexis Shackleton, director of CBS. The situation of Kwe 55 residents struggling to transition to Quebec’s social assistance program had not been brought to her attention, she said.
“It would be a matter for us to gather information and find out what exactly is happening,” said Shackleton.
She said community members who have moved off the territory who are struggling to get onto social assistance through Quebec should contact her office for administrative assistance.
She suggested CBS could use its connections to try to help Kahnawa’kehró:non navigate the program. Kwe 55 residents also have access to workers in Chateauguay tasked with helping them navigate the process.
However, as it stands, there is no mechanism to provide funds directly, said Shackleton.
Kahnawake distributes social assistance monies from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), in large part according to the parameters of Quebec’s program, which is administered by the provincial Ministry of Labour, Employment, and Social Solidarity.
“If it were occurring to a great deal of community members, that’s something that could be brought to a decision with the Client-Based Services Committee,” said Shackleton. However, funding would have to come from outside the social assistance program.
If a new, ongoing program needed to be developed, it would have to be brought to the MCK for approval, she said.
“The transfer of social assistance to a different jurisdiction would have to be maybe thought of in the future, starting the paperwork in the last week of July (in this case),” said MCK chief Ryan Montour, who leads the housing file. “These are our first tenants that are there, and we’re definitely going to be working on a solution.”
He said MCK unit directors evaluate trends and program gaps and are tasked with coming to Council if more funding is needed.
However, he emphasized that despite the growing pains, the development is a major asset for the community.
“It’s already seeing some positive effects for our community members, allowing them to empower themselves. When you get a home, it’s a real sense of independence. It’s a real sense of security and safety,” he said.
“It’s uplifting to hear success stories like that.”
He pointed out, however, that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) denied an MCK rapid housing initiative the same year the FROHME project was awarded funding. A meeting with the CMHC to discuss new funding opportunities is on the horizon later this month, he said.
While Kwe 55 takes some pressure off of Kahnawake’s strapped housing landscape, the MCK has not had to contribute funding to the development. Neither has KSCS, whose role is instead to coordinate services.
While this assistance is available, Kahnawa’kehró:non do not have to be clients of KSCS to apply for a unit at Kwe 55, emphasized Alana Kane, manager of mental wellness and addictions at KSCS.
“At the time we were asked to collaborate on the project, one of the things was we wanted to ensure whoever lived there, whether they already had a worker or not at KSCS, that they just have access to someone,” said Kane.
She said KSCS workers have been helping clients navigate new sources of income in Chateauguay in addition to other things they may need, such as transportation, in addition to counselling. The gap in social assistance payments was foreseen, she said.
“It was anticipated for sure,” she said. “The only thing, of course, we don’t have too much control over is how long the process takes when you apply in Chateauguay. I remember hearing there was some backlog there for whatever reason.”
She said KSCS has taken measures to ensure residents have access to necessities and have been working with the Chateauguay social assistance office and the social worker on site at Kwe 55 to help navigate the system there.
FROHME, which employs a social worker on site, declined to comment for this article. FROHME referred The Eastern Door to another organization, the Reseau d’information et d’aide aux personnes assistees sociales (RIAPAS), that has been a partner in requests for assistance. Nobody from that organization was immediately available to comment.
While Kwe 55 residents do not have a lease, nor the codified tenant protections that come with one, Kane said this is not a cause for concern and gives more flexibility to accommodate residents. “The reason why they didn’t want to put in a lease like you would have in Quebec is because the power differential in that the landlord can evict you for a number of reasons,” she said.
While occupants can be removed for non-payment – rent prices are limited to a quarter of a resident’s income – this is not something that would be enacted while the person awaits social assistance, she said.
She said there has been some financial assistance for residents on a case-by-case basis, giving the example of cell phone access. “Those are the kinds of things we’ve been doing.” There is no landline service provided in the units, so they need cell phones or another alternative.
“I haven’t gotten anything negative other than navigating the situation with social assistance, which, of course, is very stressful,” said Kane. Applications for Kwe 55 are still coming in, she said, which she hopes is a sign of positive word of mouth.
The laundry facilities on site are coin-operated, so residents need money even to wash their clothes. McComber doesn’t have a problem with that. “It’s teaching you responsibility, which I think is kind of cool,” he said.
“I’m happy. I’ve got a roof over my head. I’ve got everything I need.”
He is frustrated Quebec hasn’t come through with any money to help ease his transition, but he blames the government for this.
“I’m sure maybe some other people that live here may have a different view on it, but I’m loving it. I’m happy. I can say I’m finally happy. I feel like I have a home.”
Quebec’s Ministry of Labour, Employment, and Social Solidarity did not return a request for comment by deadline.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.