Once homeless and addicted to crack, Montreal woman rebuilds her life with place of her own

How housing-first programs are helping get Montrealers off the streets

Ilona Pap, 45, sits in her apartment in Cartierville. She is part of a program that provides housing to homeless women. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Ilona Pap knew things had to change. She had pawned her TV. She was panhandling. She had nowhere to stay.

Last summer, she spent two weeks living from hit to hit in a dingy apartment — a crack house — in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, in Montreal’s east end.

That’s when, with the help of a friend, she resolved to turn her life around, at last.

Five months later, after getting off drugs and completing a life-skills program at an Old Brewery Mission residence, she moved in to a place of her own.

“I love it. It’s really white, clean. Meticulous. And it’s mine,” said Pap, 45, with a glimmer in her eyes, gesturing to a newly assembled couch and desk from Ikea.

Pap recalls the exact date she moved in — Oct. 4, 2017 — without skipping a beat.

It’s the first time in eight years she has had a home of her own.

A shift in approach

Pap, 45, is among the beneficiaries of a growing number of programs offering housing to homeless people in the city.

Ten years ago, the Old Brewery Mission, a Montreal non-profit agency devoted to helping the homeless, had about 30 housing units for people who’d otherwise be in an overnight shelter or on the street.

Now, it has 300. Matthew Pearce, the organization’s president and CEO, said it’s likely that figure will double again over the next five years.

“Our basic belief is that for everyone who is inside the shelter, there is a better place to be,” he said.

“The idea is to give them rapid access to housing. Don’t wait for them to install themselves in the life of a shelter.”

When the city undertook its last official survey, in 2015, volunteers counted more than 3,000 homeless people in a single night.

Matthew Pearce is president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

The total number is likely far higher, Pearce said. His organization estimates there are as many as 20,000 people without a home at one point or another during the year.

A landmark pilot project launched nearly a decade ago in five cities across Canada, At Home/Chez Soi, found that homeless people with mental health issues placed in housing-first programs were much more likely to stay housed, better able to function in the community and to achieve a better quality of life than those without stable housing.

Today, programs aimed at getting people into stable housing are the biggest part of what the Old Brewery Mission does.

“It’s becoming the conventional way of dealing with homelessness, because the research shows it works,” Pearce said.

In fact, the number of affordable housing units offered by the mission now surpasses the number of shelter beds.

That shift proved to be an advantage this winter when his agency’s shelter was able to provide a bed to anyone in need, while Toronto saw its shelters turn people away.

“For people that Montrealers will look at on the street and say, ‘Those people are going to be homeless for the rest of their lives,’ those same people are in many cases now housed,” said Pearce. “So we have to keep at it.”

$300 goes a long way

Pap is a participant in a federally funded program called Voisines dans la communauté, inspired by the success of At Home-Chez Soi.

The 25 women currently taking part in Montreal each receive $300 a month, in addition to their social assistance cheques, to help cover their rent.

They also get $2,000 to furnish their new homes.

“Often times, they can do miracles with a very small budget,” said Florence Portes, the director of women’s services at the Old Brewery Mission.

Portes said the mission is working with the city to ensure the women in the program are prioritized for social housing when the funding for their program expires in 2019.

Keeping the ‘bad weeds’ out

Pap still meets with a counsellor once a week as part of the program, and she has her ups and down.

Living in her own place can be lonely, she admits.

Her corner of Cartierville, a collection of dreary, low-income apartments near the north end of the island, is a dramatic change from where she lived previously, in the bustling Gay Village.

But it’s also a chance for a fresh start, away from temptation.

“It’s like I’m a garden. I try to keep the bad weeds out,” she says.

The metaphor is very real for Pap, who takes pride in her growing collection of plants and her new cat, Maddy.

Most days, she goes to a nearby Tim Hortons for a snack or a coffee. She lives across the street from a new YMCA where she plans to get a membership.

Although she knows she has hurt people in the past, she is back in touch with her brother and sister and her nephews and niece.

She recently completed a provincial government job program, and she’s about to train as a furniture finisher.

Her life is simple now: she makes her coffee; she keeps a journal; she has photos of loved ones.

“It’s material things — it makes the place nice — but for me, it’s here and here that counts,” she said, pointing to her heart and her head.

“That’s what my goal was, to have a nice warm place to call my home.”

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