Homelessness and the values of restorative justice 

Cette histoire est aussi disponible en français.

Michel Monette is a Mennonite pastor and church planter from Montréal. In 2019, he created CARE Montréal, a ministry that offers shelter and care to homeless people. In November of  2021, MCC Quebec Regional Representative and member of the HochMa Mennonite Church Daniel Genest interviewed Michel about this project.

Daniel Genest: How did Restorative Justice values influence the creation of CARE Montréal, an organization that helps homeless people get back on their feet in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Montréal?

Michel Monette: The first value that comes to my mind is that of inclusiveness, which we try to manifest through an unconditional sense of hospitality. It was paramount for us to make the people we serve feel at home. They must come to believe they are full-fledged citizens of this society and welcomed with no judgements and with compassion. We meet them in their situation, and we try to create a pleasant and safe place for them. At home, we don’t normally have to comply with a bunch of prison-like rules: we go to bed or get up when we choose to, we don’t ask permission to go to the washroom, or to smoke a cigarette outside, etc. Before even trying to work with them, we need to show them our hospitality, our attitude, that they have an intrinsic value. We must make them feel it, not just tell them.

I sometimes compare a homeless person to a crumpled and stained $50 bill. Yet it retains its full value. At CARE Montréal, we believe that your past doesn’t define your identity as a person, and it certainly shouldn’t determine your future. We work from this belief in human dignity.

Celebration of a Catholic mass for CARE’s temporary shelter residents, held on October 17, 2021 in an arena on Hochelaga Street. Photo courtesy of Michel Monette

DG: Are there concrete examples of restoration through these values with CARE Montréal?

MM: When a new resident arrives, we ask them lightheartedly: “Are you a human being? If you’re not an extraterrestrial, then you’re welcome!” Actually, we do welcome non-humans as well since we also take their pets (an important presence in their lives). As part of this “restorative welcoming,” our doors are also open to people who are going through a gender transition, who are often denied access to homeless shelters because of their gender binary accommodations.

Our non-discriminatory approach is fundamental in helping our residents rebuild their self-esteem regardless of categories. We don’t want our rules and policies to stand in the way of their quest for dignity. Our approach can be qualified as “holistic” as it includes all aspects of an individual and not just the surface.

I know of a homeless man who used to be a doctor. After spending most of his adult life helping people, he had a stroke, lost his job, fell into depression, and lost his house and then his family. A brilliant man, generous, but unfortunate and forced to dwell in the streets, deprived of his dignity and pride, grieving, angry. All homeless people don’t have the usual addiction and intoxication problems, but all come to us completely broken down. We provide time and space for them to retrieve a sense of security and affirmation, to catch their breath emotionally, so they can feel a bit of peace in this chaotic world. Then, we offer them simple tasks among the services we provide.

These small accomplishments help them build their confidence back, and they learn to trust humanity a little more. It’s a long, long, process that can include setbacks and failures, but it can teach them perseverance and discipline. We encourage them to express their needs, and we help them find practical solutions so that they take control back on their lives and their environment.  

Care Montreal temporary shelter on Hochelaga street in the east end of Montréal. Photo courtesy of Michel Monette, November 2021

DG: What’s the impact of CARE Montréal in its neighbourhood, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, in Montréal, and in the society in general?

MM: Hochelaga-Maisonneuve has a bad reputation. People from other neighbourhoods in Montréal see it as a “Bougon[1]” neighbourhood, filled with lazy people on welfare. Although gentrification is gradually toning down this judgement, negative stereotypes remain (ie, not a place to raise kids). Yet the causes of homelessness are complex and too often misunderstood. As in the case of the doctor, homelessness doesn’t always stem from a moral failure of the individual; it’s sometimes the result of a combination of circumstances leading downward.

Moreover, there is a set of factors connected to our Western way of life, namely individualism and consumer capitalism, which lead to exclusion and marginalization. I like to remind politicians of that reality. Managing taxes well and making the city safe and clean is crucial. But the 600 homeless people in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve (500 more since the pandemic began) are also citizens of the city, and they suffer right next to the well-off. The perception of the privileged towards the homeless must change and vice-versa. As long as prejudice dictates actions, exclusion will prevail in our cities. Bottom line, what we do here is a work –a ministry—of reconciliation

Homeless space for sleeping outside close to the Hochma Church\Care Montreal small shelter at 3674 Ontario street Montreal. Photo courtesy of Michel Monette, December 2020

DG: Speaking of a ministry, what is the role of the HochMa Mennonite Church in the creation of CARE Montréal?

MM: The vision came from my wife and me, together, as the pastoral and church-planting couple of our church. We were looking for a more genuine presence, an incarnation, in our context. I’ve been a disciple of Jesus since 1991. I try to model the Jesus who lived on this earth and who offered love, hope and healing to all. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chap. 5-7) emphasizes the well-being of the most vulnerable among us and compels us to believe in a more inclusive society transformed by God.  Jesus laid down his life for the poor as much as for the rich.

One day, God gave me the vision of a more inclusive neighbourhood with a fine reputation in which to raise a family. But our church was weak with barely 20 adults. In general, churches don’t have much credibility when it comes to social work in Québec. God thus also gave me the faith to work towards this vision. Instead of settling for easy aims, we need large goals that we feel we can’t accomplish with God’s invention. So now I see this neighbourhood of about 55,000 inhabitants as part of God’s kingdom, and I pray for his intervention in the life of the church as well as in the lives of the people we serve. I also pray for the population in general. All are invited to walk next to Jesus!

Since then, our little HochMa church has seen multiple miracles one after the other. In 2016 we started serving $1 breakfasts to homeless people during our Sunday morning church service. Then we opened our building for winter nights below -15 Celsius. To help us, our church conference gave us a $150,000 grant and lent us $50,000 to renovate our basement for the service to the homeless (showers, washing machines, kitchen, counselling rooms). Soon we were able to serve 30 homeless people with a $30,000 budget and close to 15 volunteers. But our work has boomed during the pandemic: we serve almost 300 homeless people, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, with more than 200 staff and now a $15 million budget. Many members of our church now work for CARE and a few former homeless people, as well as some pastors and church planters.

May God help us all discern where we can make a difference in our local context, for he is already at work! This year pray that his love and wisdom guide us and that we find the faith to go along. Just as Christ “became flesh and made his dwelling among us […] full of grace and truth” (John 1.14), CARE Montréal seeks to make Christ’s love visible and tangible in our reality.      

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[1] Bougon is the name of a fictional family in a famous Québec television show. It became the stereotypical image of the poor as lazy, yet slightly rebellious, borderline crooked and on  welfare.

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