WINNIPEG — The drop-in centre called Our Place-Chez Nous, in the heart of Winnipeg’s infamous Main Street strip, is helping more people than ever — a testament to the dedication of its volunteers, but a sad sign that homelessness isn’t going away.
“More and more people are coming to Chez Nous,” said its former director, Larry Stuart, at a fundraising dinner for the centre March 12.
Stuart said Chez Nous’ only source of income to meet its annual $40,000 budget is donations. “We pay no wages, we rely on volunteers. What you are doing makes a big difference for us and we thank you for that.”
Stuart compared Chez Nous to a human body “and you are the blood. We cannot survive without you.”
The event was the fourth annual organized by the Knights of Columbus Cardinal Flahiff Assembly No. 2500, held this year at Holy Ghost Church hall, and which to date has raised $5,000 for Chez Nous.
In a video presentation about Chez Nous, also called “the cross” because of the large brown cross over its front door, the 180 supporters in attendance heard that the objective of the centre is not to change the world.
“We’re not cleaning up downtown or eliminating its poverty. We’re just making contact with people who Jesus is said to have befriended. We endeavour to see the face of Jesus when we interact with the less fortunate. So many have been abandoned by their families, we are their family.”
Deacon Claude Lambert, a longtime volunteer, said society thinks of the homeless as having no life and no dreams.
“We know better than that,” he said. “There will always be the homeless because of disadvantage, mental illness or bad decisions that leave people sleeping on the street.”
Another volunteer said she was grateful to be a part of Chez Nous. “If we put a smile on someone’s face it puts a smile on our faces. I get so much out of it, I get back a thousand-fold. I come here because I need them.”
Deacon Robert Gate said his participation at Chez Nous “makes me realize how much God loves them as they are. We don’t preach, we don’t counsel, we give help to raise them up a little bit.”
Chez Nous is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, serving coffee and tea for a minimal cost to those who can pay, or it’s provided free, with cake or cookies that have been donated. There are games, puzzles, reading material and computers.
Showers for men and women are available with towels, soap and shampoo. Clothing is always available in emergencies, but once a week people are given the opportunity to obtain free clothing and household goods. Some toiletries are sold at a minimal cost.
People are invited to participate in different crafts which they keep or give away as gifts. Every Christmas a community feast is celebrated with gift-giving. Each spring the volunteers organize an outing for the day somewhere outside the city with a barbecue, games and free time far from the city streets.
Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon said the work of those serving at Chez Nous creates “a certain kind of spirituality. People line up for food and clothes which are important to human dignity, but also for smiles. That’s a spirituality of giving and of God in our lives.”