03/31/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/30/2015 05:59 EDT

West Island homelessness a growing concern

Some West Islanders who have struggled with homelessness are joining community organizations in sounding the alarm over what they see as a serious problem.

Action Jeunesse de l'Ouest-de-l'Île (AJOI), an outreach organization based in Sainte-Geneviève, says it regularly encounters an alarming amount of new cases of people, especially teens and young adults, who find themselves without a place to live.

“[It’s] twice a week, at least, that we have somebody saying…they just got kicked out of the house, for plenty of different reasons, but we still have to find a solution,” said AJOI Co-Founder and Director Benoit Langevin.

AJOI has been speaking out about what they call couch-surfing for years. The phenomenon of West Islanders in crisis, reaching out to others for shelter, and even sleeping in green spaces when they exhaust those solutions, has kept the organization busy since its inception in 2007.

But AJOI’s staff say the more they grow and extend their reach into the community, the more they hear about West Islanders in need.

Wanting to give up

Île Bizard native Lynto Sainté has been struggling with homelessness since his mother left town when he was barely a teenager, and he decided not to follow her.

The 21-year-old says last fall he hit rock bottom, sleeping in a park and occasionally stealing food from grocery stores out of desperation.

“This one time I went three days without eating,” said Sainté. “I was really close to giving up.”

He’s now living on a couch in his cousin’s Sainte-Geneviève apartment, an arrangement that Sainté says will only last a few months.

“It’s better than [sleeping] on branches,” he said.

Sainté says while he works towards finding something more permanent, he hopes telling his story will lead to the creation of more resources in the West Island to help people out of these kinds of situations.

Mathieu Drainville says he was kicked out of his family home when he was 17, and ended up sleeping in the woods.

“I don’t want to live that again, oh no, it’s very hard,” said Drainville. “Every day you have to fight for food…you’ve got no life, because you feel nothing, no house, nobody helping you.”

Drainville, now 35, says he’s found an apartment and seasonal employment, but he says what he went through is common in the West Island, but the public doesn’t see it.

“It’s a little bit underground here, it’s not a lot of people who know that,” said Drainville. “Everybody says that oh no, no, no, you’re rich, you live in West Island. I say no, it’s expensive. A lot of people are poor here, very poor too.”

Drainville now helps AJOI with it’s outreach efforts, where staff agree that the West Island’s perceived affluence deprives it of resources for the people it tries to help every day.

“It’s not because your parents make $150,000 a year that it means a youth won’t get into a fight with their parents, where at one point, [they tell the youth] I want you out of the house,” says AJOI Outreach Worker Alix Roc Jr.

Survival tactics

Langevin says that perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the West Island’s brand of homelessness is the survival tactics that many use out of desperation.

While young men like Sainté may turn to crime, he says, women tend to cultivate physical relationships for the sole purpose of finding a bed to sleep in and a sense of security.

“You’ll see more prostitution or survival, like you’re going to trade your body to have a roof over your head and that’s very unfortunate,” says Langevin.

AJOI recently helped UQAM’s Centre for Research on Social Innovation publish an 85-page report on hidden homelessness in the West Island, information which was used in the Southern West Island Community Council (TQSOI)’s recent portrait of the southern West Island, which highlighted the growing problem of couch-surfing.

TQSOI spokesperson Alena Ziuleva says at the centre of the issue is people who, regardless of their situation, would rather stay in their communities than seek out resources downtown.

“If the young person cannot afford to pay high shelter costs in the West Island…and they want to stay in their community because that’s their home, that’s where they belong to, they have to find a solution.”