A most touching human experience

When the new Van hit the road in early July, the Development and Communications team at Dans la rue was curious to see how its return to the streets of Montreal would turn out. So I contacted Alexandre Des Groseillers, the coordinator in charge of the Van’s operations and volunteers, and asked him if I could spend an evening on the Van. His response to my request was an enthusiastic yes. So on Wednesday, August 4, I hopped onboard to meet the Van’s volunteers and the people they serve, and see first-hand how the service works. I’ve prepared this article for you about this very heartwarming human experience.

The Van’s volunteers: committed and engaging

Bénévole de Dans la rue

As I arrive at the Day Centre, I am welcomed by a trio of volunteers ─ Nunzio, Renaud and Delphine are the ones on duty that evening. Dedicated individuals like them are key to delivering the Van service and listening to youth experiencing homelessness, providing them with support, and handing out food, drinks and basic necessities.

Everyone is in a great mood, saying how excited they are to be doing their first shift with the new vehicle. This iteration of the Van is a 34-foot-long bus, which is replacing our former 30-foot RV. Great care is taken in operating and manoeuvring the vehicle, as everyone is still getting used to the new rig and how it handles on the narrow streets of downtown Montreal.

The difficult reality of homeless people

As we pull up to the first stop, at the corner of Morgan and Sainte-Catherine, the volunteers prepare me for the realities of homeless life. But Renaud assures me that, despite all the challenges they have gone through, the people we serve are always happy to see the Van arrive.

“We are moved at each stop,” says Delphine.

Between stops, the volunteers share some personal anecdotes, and I suspect they’re trying to lighten the atmosphere to counteract the human suffering we would come face to face with along the way.

Encounters with the people served by the Van

There are about 20 people already lined up on the sidewalk at our first stop. The volunteers get straight to work at the service window at the back of the Van. They form a sort of bucket brigade, with one volunteer taking orders at the window and the two others on either side, preparing hot dogs and drinks on the new and improved counters. I get off at every stop with our photographer and explain what we are doing to those gathered. I answer questions and talk to them, making sure to respect their privacy, and take down a few testimonials, with their informed consent.

The Van is like a small family

As soon as we mention we are with Dans la rue, their faces soften and smiles beam. We see that most of them are people living on the edge in housing projects, neighbourhood shelters or the street.

One woman comes over with her dog. She takes the time to sit down on her walker as she eats her hot dog. She tells me she lives alone, pointing to a rundown building close by. The Van is her “social time.” Without Dans la rue, she would spend her entire day by herself. Everyone agrees: the Van is like a family, with lots of the same faces showing up over and over again.

Bénéficiaire de la Roulotte

A point of reference for youth in difficulty

La Roulotte de Dans la rue

I hear something similar from Olivier, who comes up to me to say he’d be glad to tell me about his experience. He’s one of our “alumni.” “I used to use your services a lot. Especially the Day Centre, the Bunker and the Van, when I was living in the street. But now, I have an apartment, and things are going well for me.” The Van has remained a constant in his life since those days. “The Van has always been there for me, through thick and thin. That’s why I keep coming back.”

The Van: an essential service

It quickly becomes apparent just how busy it can get for the three-person crew handing out food. The people who have come to the Van naturally turn to me to ask for basic necessities, like toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toilet paper and the feminine hygiene products that are very much in demand among the young women. Throughout the evening, we see many people, both younger and older, for whom this will be their only meal that day. They all have the same thing to share: how grateful they are to the volunteers and services at Dans la rue. There is a mutual feeling of trust. Smiles shining through the darkness and uncertainty. The experience of the Van opens a window of hope on the support of a community and the essential work done by organizations like ours.

A real difference for people in precarious situations

When I get back home, it hits me how lucky I am to have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in, unlike so many of the people I’ve seen at the Van that night. The experience speaks volumes about the concrete difference Dans la rue is making in the lives of people who are living on the brink.

Eliza Moses, Senior Advisor, Communications, Dans la rue

Learn more about Dans la rue’s new Van, the first vehicle in Montreal 100% powered by renewable natural gas.