Local Heroes

Julie Barlow
The Next City
March 21, 1998

“DO YOU HAVE A PLACE TO SLEEP TONIGHT?” asked Father Emmett Johns. The man Montreal’s street kids call Pops and the founder of the Bon Dieu dans la rue waited for an answer he knew would not come easily. The young man Johns was talking to — a solemn youth in a leather jacket and tall black boots, a squeegee poking out of his knapsack — had been staring at the floor, expressionless, for the last half hour.

“What’s your name?” Pops asked.

“Alex.”

“Where are you from, Alex?”

“Khanawake.”

“Oh really! I know some folks from that area. Do you know the Smith family?” The young man looked up and nodded affirmation. But he still hedged on the question of his sleeping arrangements. Johns understood. It was 2:30 a.m. and minus 10 outside on that February night last winter. He slipped a cellular phone out of his pocket and made a few calls. When he found a free bed at the Refuge des jeunes, he slipped a volunteer a $20 bill and asked him to take Alex to the shelter by taxi.

When things settled down, I — the pretend volunteer — took the priest aside. Just how did he know that among the hundred or so young people who visited the Winnebago that night, it was Alex that had nowhere to sleep?

It was no mystery, Johns told me. “His buddy got off at the last stop. Kids who wash car windshields at street corners always work in pairs. When one leaves without the other, it’s a sign there’s a problem.”

After nine years of endless nights helping Montreal’s homeless youth, Father Emmett Johns can spot an urgent case in a second. At 70 years of age, the small white-bearded priest is a legend among the 5,000 youngsters who wander Montreal’s streets. Homeless youth know and trust Johns like a grandfather. In 1996, 30,000 visited his Winnebago — known as the Van, and his 20-bed downtown hostel — the Bunker — provided beds to 6,000.

Emmett Johns is an unconventional priest, one who charmed everyone around him during his 30 years of service in Montreal parishes and hospitals, but who never quite felt fulfilled in the role of parish priest. “Emmett is a charismatic. He doesn’t fit the institutional mold,” says Johns’s old friend and confidant, Bishop Neil Willard, treasurer of the Montreal Catholic diocese. As a young man, Johns dreamed of being a missionary in China. The dream expired in 1972 when his application was rejected, but the missionary drive never left him.

So in 1988, when Johns was at an age when many priests consider cutting back their duties — or retiring — he decided to heed his second calling, helping homeless youth. Johns had worked with young people during his years as a parish priest, and seeing kids living on the street had always troubled him. “What are these kids supposed to do if nobody helps them?” he asks. “A lot come from broken families, and because there are no jobs for them, they never manage to establish normal lives. The world for them is a place full of rules and regulations and people wanting to blame them for all society’s problems. But these kids are powerless.”

Johns had heard about a man in Toronto who drove through the streets handing out food to homeless kids and decided to follow the example in Montreal. He borrowed $10,000, bought an old Winnebago, equipped it with a microwave oven, took out the beds and added seats. With no particular plan in mind, he and two volunteers simply headed out onto the streets to offer hot dogs and a temporary roof to homeless youngsters.

From day one, Pops made the philosophy of the Van clear to all, including volunteers and staff. His number one rule would be respect for all. “We don’t set out to change kids,” he says. “We just want to feed them.” On the Van, Johns keeps an eye out for emergencies, but he never pushes kids to talk about their problems. He just listens to them, supporting them in whatever problems they’re facing — whether it be going back to school, going back home, working out problems with friends, or finding a vet to take care of a sick pet.

“The important thing is to give these kids a place of their own, a place where they can just hang out and eat and chat,” says Johns. The Van is much more of a travelling café than, say, a crisis centre. It is an informal, relaxed place where there aren’t many rules. Volunteers distribute hot dogs and cheese dogs, Tylenol, underwear, socks, clothing, cigarettes, and condoms. Johns roams about with a spoon and a bottle of cough syrup, discreetly handing out bus tickets and money to those who seem in need. The teenagers, many of whom looked menacing in the street, are transformed inside the Van. They say “please” and “thank you,” and rarely complain, argue, or so much as raise their voices.

From its humble beginnings — when Johns ran the show himself with several volunteers — Dans la rue has grown into an organization with 21 employees, over 60 volunteers, and a budget of $1.3 million, all of which is raised through private donations. Private funding has been a key element of Dans la rue’s philosophy from the start. “The very first week we were on the street, we saw a demonstration of non-governmental organizations protesting delays in their governments grants. We didn’t want to fall into that,” says Johns. “We thought we would be better off if we could avoid the bureaucracy altogether.” Johns says government funding comes at a price he’s not willing to pay. “The government could change our orientation if they wanted, tell us who to hire, or decide that Dans la rue would make a nice service for seniors. If we were dependent on them for funding, we would be powerless against that.”

Luckily, Johns has a gift for winning others to his cause. When he is not visiting his kids, he zigzags the city, giving speeches at luncheons, conferences, and in schools, doing his part for Dans la rue’s fund-raising campaign. At a Kiwanis Club luncheon at the Montreal Athletic Club last winter, Johns described the misery of homelessness to a group of well-heeled business people, using frank, even graphic, terms. “One night, a young woman came on board the Van and all she wanted was clean underwear,” Johns tells them, pausing. “She had just been raped at gunpoint. . . .”

Honesty and frankness seem to work. Johns provokes a kind of generosity that has made Dans la rue the envy of Montreal charities. Last January, an Asian business man — whose parents had thrown him out of the house at 18 — wrote Dans la rue a cheque for $200,000. The Montreal-based navigation company Fednav International lets him use their accountant and one of their rooms for board meetings. The financial consulting firm McKinsey made him a business plan free of charge.

“We have the money we need,” says Johns. “Sometimes I even tell donors to give to other organizations in the city that we depend on, instead.”

Johns and his staff spent last year raising money for a long held dream of his, a day centre where homeless youth would have access to services and resources to help them get off the street. They had so much success that the original objective of $1.5 million was raised to $2.3 million. By the end of the campaign, they had raised $2.5 million. Dans la rue purchased a former two-floor warehouse in Montreal’s East End, which has since been converted into a day centre.

The centre, Chez Pops, opened this November. On the first floor, where there is a large cafeteria, teenagers — and their pets — gather, chatting, smoking, and hanging out. There is a medical office with a full-time nurse on staff, laundry facilities, showers, and an art studio visible through bay windows from the street.

“If the kids want to get off the street,” says Johns, “we point them upstairs.” The second floor has a computer room, a reference centre with information on housing, employment, and social services, a “quiet” room, offices to meet with youth workers, and two spacious rooms Johns is particularly proud of: the classrooms. Here Francine, the day centre’s full-time teacher, works daily with between 6 and 18 students, many of whom are trying to complete their high school diplomas in order to work or do further studies. “The kids have to learn some very basic stuff, like how to study, how to memorize, how to behave in a group,” says Anne Maisonneuve, who is in charge of press relations at Dans la rue.

For Johns, the day centre is the culmination of nine years of work, winning the trust of Montreal’s homeless youth, and building the only kind of organization that makes sense to them: one that addresses their needs on their terms, in a way they understand. But he is loath to take credit for the centre himself, and with reason. “This place is being run by a lot of volunteers who have been on the street themselves. They’ve sort of worked up through the system.” Johns’s system, that is.

Johns is confident that the day centre will be a success. And he’s not alone. “Social services agencies from the government are actually starting to call us up now for help,” says Anne Maisonneuve. “They want to model their programs on ours!”

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