Halifax’s homeless people are someone’s family

Donna Poirer and John Connor of Metro Turning Point shelter. Photo: Suzanne Rent

Donna Poirer and John Connor know what homelessness looks like in Halifax. They’re frontline workers at Metro Turning Point, the dark-green and white-trimmed men’s shelter on Barrington Street, located just north of the Cogswell Interchange.
Poirer is a senior trustee. She has at least 150 clients, and helps them when they can’t pay their bills. These are people on the brink of homelessness. Connor, meanwhile, is a client support worker who works directly with the clients in the shelter, finding out their needs and connecting them with resources and services.
“It’s not a choice,” Poirier says. “People don’t choose to be homeless.”
Connor agrees. “They are just people fighting, getting through their lives,” he says. “I would say this is a small bump in the road for them. Hopefully, they move onto something better.”
Poirier has worked here for 34 years. Her office is in the bottom level of the shelter. The window is broken and covered over after a recent break in. Connor started here 21 years ago. Both worked in the previous shelter across the street. That shelter started with 20 beds. That moved up to 50. The current shelter is 15 years old and has 80 beds.
The clientele has changed, too. When Poirier started here, she says most of the men were at least 30 years old. Now they are much younger, and include many teens.
A move toward deinstitutionalization in the 1980s meant more people with mental-health issues and addictions ended up on the street. The government opened dozens of group homes, but many clients left the Nova Scotia Hospital and never found a permanent place to stay.
Addictions have changed, too. Alcoholism is still a huge problem, but Connor says many clients are addicted to harder drugs like cocaine, crack, and prescription pills. Still others become homeless because of other circumstances: job loss, family breakdowns. All have nowhere to go.
Poirier says people see men as protectors and providers, so people don’t understand how they become homeless. She says these men are someone’s family, someone’s neighbours.
“Are you going to put them up in your home?’ Poirier says. “If you don’t have a room or can’t afford to take care of that person, where are they going to go? So, that person ends up here. The men we see here don’t all have that. There are many reasons they come here.”
Melissa Phillips is the director of homelessness and housing at Shelter Nova Scotia, which operates Metro Turning Point. She’s worked with Poirier and Connor since 2008.
She says Poirier is warm, approachable, compassionate, and likes to have fun at work, even when it’s a tough day. Poirier reminds her colleagues about upcoming holidays, for example. She once bought Phillips an apple when she was teaching a class. Phillips says if Poirier left her job tomorrow, she’d take with her an immeasurable amount of knowledge that would be missed.
“She’s been around for long so, she’s built the [trustee] program from the ground up,” Phillips says. “Donna’s reputation is solid and people know [she] provides a service with compassion and concern for the people she’s working with.”
Connor, Phillips says, is levelheaded, works well under pressure, and is as “solid as a rock.”
“He is someone that has so many years of experience,” Phillips says. “His memory is amazing. The things he remembers, the phone numbers he remembers is quite astonishing. He’s modest. When I think of John, I think of stable.”
Phillips says together, the work Poirier and Connor do is for more than just the clients at Metro Turning Point. She says they are a gift to the community.
“People like John and Donna are people who work tirelessly for people in our community who are vulnerable,” Phillips says. “They are people who work hard under very difficult conditions to make the day even a bit brighter for people who are facing poverty, trauma, victimization, and so many hard things. They are a friendly face that is also happy to see you.”
Poirier and Connor still hear from former clients, even years after they’ve left the shelter. They get Christmas cards from them. Some have moved onto university. Others passed on, and the staff here helped arrange funerals.
“We are the longest ones here,” Poirier says. “They’ve made that connection, and they walk away. But they never forget.”
“Sometimes you become family to them,” she continues. “Sometimes we’re all they’ve got. Some have family but for whatever reason they don’t associate with. But they know you, they treated you well, they come and tell you stuff or come and ask for a reference. They are comfortable with you. It’s how you treat people.”
Both say it’s the little things, too, that would make life better for clients while they are in the shelter. Poirier would like to have meals served at the shelter. Currently, clients go to other organizations for food. Connor says small items such as bus tickets would help clients get back and forth to appointments.
Frontline work like this is stressful. Poirer and Connor have their ways of coping with their work. Connor plays sports: slow-pitch, darts, and bowling. Poirer spends time with her children, and grandchildren, and takes walks outside with her husband.
“You have to have a lot of patience, but you have to be so flexible because you’re dealing with so many types of individuals who are dealing with various issues and problems,” Poirier says. “You have to be able to adapt to their emotions and what they are going through. And you have to be grateful for what you have yourself.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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