Posted 2 years ago on Nov. 9, 2011, 4:34 p.m. EST by Thrasymaque
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MONTREAL - Almost every evening, Stéphane Marceau is lending a hand to the city's homeless.
One night he might be washing and dressing feet raw from fungal infections. Other nights he's dispensing pacifying doses of alcohol to men on a withdrawal rampage. Sometimes, all he provides is a warm cup of coffee.
Usually, he does this out of his truck at any downtown street, but over the last week he has been a regular sight at Victoria Square, base camp of Occupy Montreal.
"I heard that's where a lot of them are, so I went there," said Marceau, a psychiatric nurse who runs the Groupe Humanitaire Montréal charity in his spare time.
Depending on whom you ask, there are between 15 and 40 homeless people at Victoria Square, better known as the People's Square since the anticapitalist occupation took it over last month.
Some of them spend the night in a spare tent, others just come for the free food during the day.
Aid workers, like Marceau, are taking notice.
"In an ideal world they'd be in the hospital or a shelter," Marceau said. "But someone at the occupation might encounter a homeless person who is drunk or in need of assistance. That's why we're there."
Since the occupation began on Oct. 15, the tent village that sprouted has been a choice refuge for Montreal's itinerants. Beside the free food, clothing and occasional shelter, they receive a kind of welcome they're not used to getting.
"What they really need is attention; they need to be heard," Marceau said. "Even if it's just to joke around, there's always someone here to hear them."
But their presence also presents a challenge: Confrontations, sparked by drunkenness or psychological troubles, are a regular occurrence, especially at night. Theft is becoming a problem.
The activists, whose goal is to shine a light on the downtrodden and marginalized, have formed a security committee. As a matter of principle, they approach flare-ups with a kind of firm diplomacy: If the instigator won't calm down after a polite request, he is asked to leave.
"We just try to calm them down," said Johnny Sansalone, a security volunteer.
"There are drunk people here like anywhere else in society. Except here we actually try to help them."
That help is usually in the form of referral. For specific ailments, Marceau points the affected person to a clinic, shelter or other agency.
But for the most part, forming a bond with the agitated person can go a long way.
"They know me; they recognize me there," Marceau said. "When I arrive during a conflict, they'll say, 'Okay, Steph, it's cool, I'm calmer now.'"
But most occupiers don't have the experience Marceau has. A few organizers approached a homeless shelter for advice on dealing with challenging behaviours.
"We invited them to come and meet with our people who deal with security in a respectful and constructive way," said Matthew Pearce, general director of the Old Brewery Mission. "We'll be happy to collaborate with them."
However, the mission won't send anyone to the camp as an official representative, as the shelter won't take a position on the movement.
Shelter workers have nonetheless been volunteering at the camp on their own.
Rémy Boutros, who has been at the occupation since Day 1, says the goal is to help the homeless integrate in society. For this, they are looking to invite social workers to teach them assimilation strategies.
"These are people who feel excluded from society," Boutros said. "But it's not enough to just have them around. We need to work out how we can help them, show them how to fish."
Marceau said the occupation has already drawn social work students from city universities to get some handson experience dealing with troubled citizens.
Media relations offices of universities contacted by The Gazette said they are not aware of any such programs. However, a social work professor at UQAM is planning a "pedagogical activity" with some students next week, said André Valiquette, spokesperson for the university.
Marceau thinks this kind of training will show them what social work really means.
"The students see that what they learn in class and what happens on the streets are two different things," he said.
"It helps them decide they either love what they do or they change careers."