Tent City: a deeper look into the people who have made this a temporary home
Colin Clarke, special to the Bulletin
On December 5 in 2014, a light snow had fallen across the region, the temperature was -15 degrees that morning. Roughly 20-30 people walked from their temporary homes, hoping to score breakfast before their daily routine of asking for money on the streets of central Gatineau began. These 3-dozen or so people lived in what has since been dubbed “Tent City Gatineau”.
On December 5, this year, some 150 people woke up to a heavy snowfall and freezing rain from the previous day, walked from their tents looking for a meal, any meal, some heat or at the very least some warm human contact and companionship.
The number of homeless people has gone up dramatically since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Numbers of people now living in Tent City are hard to come by, but most estimates show between 130-150.
Located next to the old Guertin Arena on rue Carillon in the Hull sector, Tent City has grown from a dozen or so tents nestled in the trees alongside Brewery Creek, to a sprawling temporary community encompassing not only the original Brewery Creek location, but much of the parking lot next to the arena and beyond.
“The number of people living here is horrific. These are average people, anyone of them could have been your former neighbour, an acquaintance you may have run into at the grocery store, or someone you saw at church every Sunday,” said Sylvain Henry, one of the main organizers of this grassroots movement. “Many were working full time jobs before the pandemic, some still are working, but simply can’t afford to pay rent, or buy the necessary food or medicine that sustains them,” he continued.
Sylvain Henry, and Nicole Courville, just regular Gatineau citizens, could no longer stand-by with what they saw day in and day out. The two of them spearheaded a movement to bring basic human necessities to those in Tent City. They don’t work for the City of Gatineau, they have no financial backing, no political affiliation, and no social workers behind them, but they are not alone.
Since mid- October, Sylvain, and a dozen or so volunteers, have been meeting in a parking lot next to the Guertin Arena, distributing hundreds of articles of winter clothing to the many hundreds of homeless people that now call Tent City home. Everything that is given has been donated by residents or local companies who care about their plight.
This mission of mercy started with a few people talking on a Facebook group about the plight of tent City residents and their deplorable conditions. As they spoke and messaged each other, things started to take shape. Soon other people joined in and offered donations, organization, handling the distribution, and much more.
Sylvain, Carole, Nicole, Lianne, Louise among others (a few have asked not to use their full names) and a handful of concerned citizens have been organizing and gathering donations of warm clothing, footwear and even portable toilets, as most of the temporary ‘Port-O-Potties’ had been removed by the city and distributing to the homeless here.
“Nicole is my main driving force. Without her none of this would happen. Lianne, Carolle and Louise have been so amazing during these last couple of months that I would be simply lost without them, and the residents here would have suffered more,” said a thankful Henry.
“People living here have no ability to take a shower or bath, they have few possessions and what they do have fits into a small tent in most cases,” said Henry. “Those who are lucky enough to have access to one of the trailers on site, have no heat, no running water, no food and basically are only sheltered from the elements like wind and rain or snow.” He concluded.
One of Sylvain’s volunteers, an Aylmer resident, was so moved by both Henry and one man, she decided to ’adopt’ her homeless friend. She helps to provide stability and keeps connected. “This adoption is spiritual (…) I encourage him, I listen to him, help him stay on track and more. Jesus spoke to me, and I acted,” Louise said.
For those on the corners asking for handouts, an issue stems from preconceived notions that the homeless will simply use the money for booze or drugs. “We may get a little high at times, but that keeps going until the next day. If I only eat once a day and I’m cold and starving, that little bit of booze or a bit of weed helps me get through to the next day,” said one of the homeless – who refused to have her name published or a photo taken.
This woman ended up there as a result of an abusive, and dangerous situation with her former boyfriend. She had no choice but to leave, and with her lack of income, she had few choices but to live in Tent City.
“I have no ability to store food, or to cook it, I can’t even make a cup of coffee - something which I used to take for granted, so I end up going to McDonalds or a chip wagon for food. I often live on a bag of chips, whatever is available at the homeless shelter, and a single daily meal from a fast-food restaurant. I can’t afford more,” she lamented. “Rent is out of the question.”
The work Henry and his army of volunteers is making a real difference in the lives of the people here. The team has supplied winter clothing, food, water, boots, shoes and other essentials, including air filled, hand-made mattresses – made from discarded milk bags. To show the tenants in Tent City, that people care, he and his group arranged to have this bedding delivered by a Brinks Truck.
“This was quite an event, they were taken by surprise and delighted to see a Brinks truck deliver something that they can sleep on instead of the hard ground. On top of that, we have a group of Aylmer residents that are willing to weave more of these – we need to make at least 30-50 more. The organizers can be reached by searching Facebook groups for “Tent City Network”, said Henry.
With more inclement weather imminent, the team is working with the Canadian Military to provide and install 50 military tents on the Arena grounds. These tents are stronger than standard ones, are fireproof and the military is arranging to have electricity supplied to these temporary homes for heating and other purposes. Each tent can comfortably house 2 people. With the snow and freezing rain on December 4 and 5th, a number of the hastily erected tents collapsed upon their tenants. This solution will help eliminate that concern.
Henry and his team also organized a Christmas party for the residents of Tent City on December 8 and had invited the Mayor of Gatineau to attend. All of the food and gifts have been donated by various citizens. The dinner, held at La Soupe Populaire on blvd. Allumettières, was much appreciated by the many who attended.
“An event like this during the Christmas season really helps bring up their spirits. They have suffered so much, both before they ended up in tent City and while they are here, that (Christmas dinner) is something we all take for granted but is so special to them,” Henry commented.
“Imagine your life as it is today, then imagine – in a week – that something has happened and you no longer have a home, running water, electricity, food or a change of clothing. This is what has happened to a large number of people that live here,” lamented Henry.
Henry and his army of volunteers don’t want recognition. They have kept the media away as much as possible. “The people living here are proud people. They wouldn’t be here if they had a choice,” he said.
“All we’ve done is help the people here, they have shown nothing but gratitude and respect for us. They remember our names; we get hugs from them and see a lot of tears. They are mostly good people and are here because of a bad situation that occurred in their lives. It could have been a single incident, or a series of unfortunate events. Sometimes these things happen. I am focussed on finding solutions and – if nothing else - we can shine a light on this situation so a solution can be found – then we’ll be so happy,” Henry concluded.
While these donations, tents and dinners are not a solution to the growing problem, they are, at very least, giving some level of comfort and humanity to the large population of people calling Tent City home.
Photo caption: At the Christmas dinner for Tent City residents hosted by La Soupe Populaire on December 8, Devcore spokesman, Nicholas Bouquet, receives a painting from Louise Ward after making an announcement that Devcore will install 50 heated tents on December 11. Bouquet also announced that Devcore, with the help of several other companies, will create a variety of low-income apartments in a building on Morin Street. The painting was created by a friend of Ward’s and depicts a homeless man taking care of an animal while he himself does without. It is based on a true-life event. Left to right: Carine Sacerdoce, Devcore Spokesman Nicholas Bouquet, Louise Ward, and Jonathan Ward.
Photos credit: Collin Clarke