From Displacement to Inclusion
Engaging through art in Montreal's Viger Square. Credit: Mikael Theimer for Exeko

The stigma of homelessness, which intersects with racism and stigmas attached to substance use and mental illness, can create misunderstanding and social barriers between differently housed park users.

As COVID-19 raises the potential for increased prejudice toward people experiencing homelessness, addressing these issues through education and shared experiences becomes even more important.

Instead of avoiding friction through displacement, organizations are using creative strategies to work through these tensions, helping communities to better understand each other and strengthen relationships in the process.

Build bridges through art

In Montreal, non-profit organization Exeko engages people experiencing homelessness in artistic and intellectual activities through the idAction project. The project brings a ‘philosophical caravan’—a van stocked up with art supplies and a library—to public spaces around the city.

Dorothée de Collasson, co-director of programs at Exeko, said art helps to create shared experiences and change perceptions. “By putting a jukebox in a park, for example, the person [experiencing homelessness] becomes the dancer, or the musician, or the guy who chose the right song,” she said. The perception changes completely.

The Native Women’s Shelter’s Cabot Square Project has also used artistic programming to foster cultural learning and connection between the community of homeless park regulars and residents of the surrounding neighbourhood.

Nakuset, the Native Women’s Shelter’s executive director, said that despite the added support of a full-time park-based social worker, “there was still the issue that … the people around the park remained fearful.”

To address this, the weekly Aboriginal Fridays program invites people into the park to participate in free artistic and cultural activities, including soapstone sculpture workshops, dreamcatcher making, hoop dancing and concerts.

“When everyone gathers, people learn the beauty of our culture,” said Nakuset, “they are having a conversation, and it is starting to change their perception of Indigenous people.”

Aboriginal Fridays at Cabot Square in Montreal. Credit: Lori Calman
Aboriginal Fridays at Cabot Square in Montreal. Credit: Lori Calman
Create employment opportunities

Exeko’s Dorothée de Collasson recommends recognizing and valuing the skills of people experiencing homelessness, and exploring the potential for park-based income opportunities.

Having a conversation with an unhoused park user about their skills can also be an opportunity to begin building a relationship and learning to collaborate, de Collasson said. “A talent map can be produced to help managers visualize but also make visible the talents of these people in the public space they occupy,” she suggested.

The Roundhouse Cafe, located in a pavilion within Cabot Square, offers one model for park-based employment.

A project of l’Itineraire, a community-based organization that supports people experiencing homelessness and marginalization, the Roundhouse is Montreal’s first Indigenous cafe. Employing roughly 16-20 Indigenous staff, the cafe offers flexible employment arrangements—whether that means working only a few hours at a time, or receiving wages in cash at the end of a shift.

A creative workshop at Place Émilie Gamelin in Montreal. Credit: Audrey-Lise Mallet for Exeko
A creative workshop at Place Émilie Gamelin in Montreal. Credit: Audrey-Lise Mallet for Exeko
Engage people in park design and stewardship

For cities looking to create more inclusive public spaces, researcher Cara Chellew advises that there are no set design guidelines to follow. Rather, inclusive design is a process, Chellew said. Meaningfully involving people experiencing homelessness in the planning stage will result in spaces that better support their use of parks.

Dorothée de Collasson added that this engagement should continue after parks are built, recommending not to hesitate to involve marginalized people in beautification initiatives, such as murals and horticultural maintenance projects.

Montreal non-profit Sentier Urbain has been doing this for 25 years through their Jardins Gamelin project—a participatory garden in a park that offers a paid pre-employment training program focused on horticultural skills. This approach recognizes homeless people as local experts and fosters a sense of belonging and accomplishment.

Community groups that steward a particular park, such as park friends groups, should also look for opportunities to connect with marginalized park users, de Collasson said.

For example, when groups are getting started, they can host simple social activities like a movie night or a picnic to break the ice. “These initial contacts allow the various users to share positive experiences,” de Collasson said, “and prepare the ground to make people more tolerant and empathetic with each other.”

Aboriginal Fridays at Cabot Square in Montreal. Credit: Lori Calman
Aboriginal Fridays at Cabot Square in Montreal. Credit: Lori Calman