Le Marginal: Food and Contact for Québec’s Homeless

Le Marginal: Food and Contact for Québec’s Homeless

LiQ_Mag_Mar_2015_coverThis article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Ruby Pratka

Mathieu Dechêne pulls his latest creation out of the industrial oven, and the smell of spicy tomato sauce fills the room. He calls the casserole “Italian rice.” He’s used to being creative with donated vegetables.

“Rice, tomato sauce, celery, bell peppers, a few other vegetables and some Italian sausage,” he explains. “We need to make something that’s filling. Some of our clients won’t have had that much to eat all day.”

Dechêne and his colleague, Pascale Bouffard, are preparing dinner for several dozen homeless youth in downtown Québec City. When the casserole, salad and hot dogs are ready, they load everything into an aging camper van, known as Le Marginal, and set off.

Two nights a week, the camper makes one stop downtown and another in Place d’Youville. Homeless or precariously-housed people can come in for dinner and coffee. They can take small bags of food home with them, dispose of dirty needles and rummage in the box of donated clothes. Bouffard and Dechêne connect people with services and assist them with paperwork. The camper also provides an intangible gift— human contact. “If you’re panhandling or if you’re on your own all day, you can spend the entire day without a single meaningful conversation,” says Dechêne. “Imagine how hard that is.”

Bouffard, Dechêne and the other volunteers are friendly with their young clientele, exchanging hugs, handshakes and backslaps while filling coffee cups and distributing hot dogs. “These people have to fight so much to eat and stay warm,” says Louis, a volunteer. “When they’re here, I want them to get some rest and leave their worries outside, to feel welcomed and loved.”

About 40 men and women come into the camper on one particularly cold night, some walking confidently, some timid, some stumbling drunk. “We don’t turn anyone away, no matter how drunk they are,” says Bouffard, a trained substance abuse counsellor. “Shelters can’t work that way because they have to deal with the person for eight hours; we only have to deal with them for 30 minutes.”

The visitors talk about their dreams. Several say they’ll accept a job, any job. One young man wants to be a professional wrestler. “I want to go back to school and be a nurse’s aide, but I need to get my Secondary 4 first and I’m doing that now,” says Andréanne, a shy woman in her early 20s. “This keeps me from paying for dinner.”

“I just want to wake up better one day,” says Jean, an unemployed chef who has struggled to make ends meet since being injured on the job. The camper has helped take the weight of paying for food off his shoulders. “Right now, I’m paying for the apartment and for my health. The work ruined my hands and I need work done on my back,” he says. He briefly shows his hands— red, inflamed and claw-like. “When this is over, I want to work in a warehouse. I don’t believe in social assistance.”

Jean says the van has brought him more than food. “We’re like a family in the camper,” he says.

“Even if you’re on social assistance, you only get about $500-$600, just enough to live on,” adds Éric, another frequent visitor. “That’s why people from everywhere come and eat here, from St-Roch, Ste-Foy, Beauport…”

Dechêne knows what many of the visitors are living through— he says he’s been through it himself. “I think my past does help some people to trust me, especially in the beginning when you have to create a bond with people,” he says.

“I don’t have anything in my family that would have predisposed me to homelessness. I was educated, I came from a good family and I had worked since I was 16, but these things can happen,” he says. He started using drugs and resorting to petty theft while at university, to finance his habit and to pay production expenses for a rap album. In a few years, he was on the street.LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

“I call it the toilet bowl theory. When you flush the toilet at first it turns slowly, and then faster and faster until everything is down the drain,” he says. “Maybe at first you miss a meeting with a friend. Then you show up late to work and get a warning, and it happens again and you lose your job. And on and on…”

He lost an apartment when he couldn’t pay the rent. He couch-surfed with friends and relatives and occasionally slept on park benches.

“Not knowing where you’re going to sleep is a constant worry, and when you get high, it’s the only time you feel that life isn’t so bad. So your entire life is organized around that. We run into that in the camper. Not all of our people have drug problems, but a bunch of them do.”

“I’d sold everything I had. I was stealing to get money to live. I was committing crimes and I wasn’t very subtle about it. The turning point was when I got arrested; for some people, that’s the only thing that can stop them.”

He served a month in prison, enrolled in a job skills program and began giving talks about drug addiction in schools. He was hired as a drug prevention counsellor in Montréal. He lived in fear of being ‘outed’ as a former addict with a criminal record. “I told the interviewer that I had given talks about drug prevention based on personal experience, and you’d think that would raise a red flag, but no. I thought, ‘Sometimes miracles happen.’”

After three months, Dechêne was marked for a promotion, and that’s when his boss discovered his criminal record. He was out the door. “I guess the board members could already envision the cover of the Journal de Montréal, you know, Un délinquant s’occupe de vos enfants ? So that was it.”

“We tend to judge people who have lived on the street too harshly,” he says. “Living in a bad situation doesn’t make you a bad person.”

He returned to Québec City and took short-term jobs to save up to study specialized education. “I thought I should take some of the things I had done and seen that were negative, and try to turn those into positive things,” he says. He interned at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which hired him permanently despite his record, which is where he started working with the camper. “When someone is hungry and you give them something to eat, when someone is in distress and they leave better, that’s really gratifying,” he says. “It makes me feel like what I did, what I lived though, all of that wasn’t just for nothing.”

Some names have been changed and family named omitted in order to protect the privacy of Le Marginal’s clientele.

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About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for LifeinQuebec.com and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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