When Steel James McDonald began his daily walk for his mental health at the onset of the epidemic, he noticed that the streets of Montreal were often empty – except for the apparent number of people experiencing homelessness.
“Every time I walk, I see more people in the corners of the streets, and tents are set up everywhere,” said the Vanier College student.
After talking to a man who was experiencing homelessness, McDonald learned that he needed to take action after being told that the lack of foot movement and pocket change was hitting the community hard.
Thus was born Welfare Avenue – a non-profit organization run by students that provides food, hygiene and clothing to people experiencing homelessness in Montreal.
“We and a friend started cooking … then basically more people saw, the astronaut got involved and more students came,” said McDonald, the organization’s founder and managing director.
The team sets up a tent outside the Perry-UQAM metro station each weekend to distribute basic necessities and feed hundreds of people at once.
“These people don’t have enough support, and most of them are on the streets,” McDonald said.
“Without companies like Welfare Avenue, they would not be able to get the basic support they need.”
‘Mutually complementary relationship’
Since its small launch two years ago, the organization has amassed a list of about 500 student volunteers.
Melissa Mukesa, who recently emigrated to Montreal from Rwanda, is on the list. Mukesa says she joined as a way of giving back to the community and felt the need to do so throughout her life.
“I think this is something very basic to me … something that feels natural,” she said.
Mukesa said those who come to the tent for support every weekend are “happy and grateful” for the team’s work, but they are not the only ones benefiting.
“When we do good deeds for others, I think most people don’t realize that the person who does it is doing that deed,” he said.
“It’s a mutually complementary relationship.”
McDonald now looks forward to further developing his team, expanding across Montreal Island and other schools, and one day creating a national program.
“Students get a valuable experience when they talk to people [experiencing homelessness] There … it brings a lot of joy, “he said.