11/21/2013 02:47 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Projet P.A.L. helps city's vulnerable fill often-invisible needs

By the mid-1970s in Montreal, life for those struggling with significant mental health issues was changing. 

A push for de-institutionalization meant former psychiatric patients were now looking for support in the community — and many were left falling through the gaps. 

Projet P.A.L. emerged to fill that void. Founded by a social worker and former patients, the bilingual organization first aimed to help those leaving hospital find housing. 

"We specifically place a lot of emphasis on building skills and helping people to improve their quality of life," said Projet P.A.L. coordinator, Angela Murphy. 

Over the years, the program expanded to cover more of the needs left unfulfilled in an often-stigmatized population. Social clubs, community meals, adult education, work experience, sports, dancing and advocacy all became part of Projet P.A.L.'s work. 

More than 50 people now rely on the organization's supportive housing service and would likely be homeless if it wasn't available, Murphy said. 

Another 350 more rely on the organization for crisis intervention, aid and accompaniment, referrals and other services offered. 

"Our members consider P.A.L. their home — where they come  to celebrate Christmas, their birthday, share a meal  where they will always be welcome, accepted and supported," Murphy said. 

Another surprising element grew out of the organization initially founded to solve the most basic challenges faced by those struggling to live in the community. 

The P.A.L. choir, established seven years ago out of the need to have a group sing at Christmas, is now one of the organization's most visible components. 

"It's a really good example of how initially (someone) may be seen as a person with a mental heath problem, but underneath, there's a musician, there's a singer, there's someone who can write the words to a song," Murphy said. 

"When the choir comes together,  they're no longer individuals with mental health problems. They're part of a group singing."

Projet P.A.L. receives some funding from Centraide and other sources but, like many community organizations, they struggle to meet demand. 

The demand for community meals never lets up and the pressure on P.A.L.'s other services is growing. 

The choir which performs in the community, has no uniforms, use outdated musical instruments and lack means of transporting their gear around.

"The choir may not seem like and essential service," Murphy said. "But it really does, I feel, demonstrate how a person can reintegrate in the community — how a person can feel important again and give back. So we would like to see some money go there."