Creeco funding gets Val-d’Or’s homeless centre Willie’s Place back on its feet

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williesplacereturnWillie’s Place will rise again. The popular but embattled day-centre for homeless people in Val-d’Or was forced to close April 10 after its initial funding ran dry.

Luckily, various groups took notice and began planning to help support the centre. The first of these was Creeco, whose chairman, Jack Blacksmith, was present when Edith Cloutier of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre made an appeal to the Grand Council and Band Councils for financial support.

“[Blacksmith] and Creeco were the first ones to extend a hand of friendship and support to Willie’s place,” Cloutier said. “The board of CREECO informed us that they were giving us the fundraising golf tournament profits. That tournament is well supported by the business people in Val-d’Or. They’re expecting to raise at least the equivalent of what they had last year, around $40,000, and they’re going to give that to the Friendship Centre so we can run Willie’s Place. It’s great. It’s going to help us a lot.”

According to Cloutier, the temporary closure was felt across the community.

“We had a survey done by some researchers who are doing broader research on homelessness,” she told the Nation. “We asked them to see the SQ, the head of the Emergency Room, to see whether they’ve seen a difference since we opened Willie’s Place. They all said, ‘Definitely.’ The police have less complaints, issue less tickets, businesspeople see fewer people around, intoxicated in public or their businesses – there are many positive outcomes.”

Willie’s Place, unlike the Friendship Centre, welcomed homeless people regardless of whether they were intoxicated or sober, a key ingredient in bringing people off the street and out of the weather. It created a community among its members and gave them a meeting point from which they could check in with and look out for one another, while at the same time Cloutier and her colleagues could use the centre to deliver front-line outreach services.

A second blow hit Willie’s Place recently, however – the building of the former Chateau Louis bar, in which it was located, was sold to a private buyer who wishes to redevelop the space. Val-d’Or homeless outreach organization La Piauvre had hoped to purchase the building in order to turn it and the rooms above it into supervised housing space for people on the street.

“La Piauvre lost the option to purchase – the deadline ran out, and this other person put a bid in,” Cloutier explained. “Of course, the owner had wanted to sell that place for a long time. We were renting out the space for peanuts. The owner really supported us in getting and emergency drop-in centre open.”

Now Willie’s Place faces the challenge of locating affordable new space that will be supported by members of the community.

“We’re actively looking at what can be rented out, and of course we’re confronted with the challenge of ‘not in my backyard’ again,” she said. “We’re opening up to all kinds of options, whether it be renting, commercial – we have to be downtown, because that’s where the people are. It’s part of that challenge that every [homeless outreach] organization faces, Native or non-Native. But add on the Aboriginal factor, and the combination is a truly strong ‘not in my backyard.’”

There’s no fixed date on when Willie’s Place will reopen its doors, or where – only that everyone involved wants it to happen as soon as possible. To that end, they’re even considering trying to buy a small building, though Cloutier recognized that might be too big of a risk.

Regardless, Cloutier said that the Friendship Centre is getting its documents together for a press conference to tell the city and its businesses about the positive effects that Willie’s Place had on the community. She thinks that when the city sees the value in the space, it may open up possibilities for wider public support.

“We’re considering how we could get a project of our own, a Friendship Centre-driven project for supervised housing, like the one La Piauvre was working on that ended with the sale of that building. So we’d like to find out if we can take on a leadership role in reopening Willie’s Place, wherever it will be located, then look into the option of a broader project in terms of housing.”

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