Making it official – Willie’s Place celebrates re-opening after turbulent year

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It’s actually been three months since Willie’s Place quietly re-opened its doors at a new location after a funding crunch closed it last year, but now Val-d’Or’s homeless drop-in centre is ready to make it official.

“There’s going to be a ribbon cutting, with speeches from local and political partners, and institutional partners,” said Sharon Hunter of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre. “Hopefully we’ll get to invite the Hester family as well,” she added, referring to relatives of the late Willie Hester, after whom the daytime drop-in is named. The inauguration ceremony is planned for March.

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Intervention worker Benoit Theoret, Melissa B. Saganash and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come

The new Willie’s Place, located at 728 4th Avenue, began taking clients in mid-October while it conducted renovations of the new building. A successful pilot project at the beginning of 2015, it was forced to close last April, when its initial funding ran out. Last summer, though, CREECO provided new funding of $43,000 raised during its annual golf tournament.

However, once they had enough money to reopen Willie’s Place, the Friendship Centre and their partners at homeless shelter La Piaule (and other organizations) discovered their location at the former Chateau Louis had been sold. It took until fall to find another suitable location. Then, shortly after Willie’s Place cracked open its doors, the Val-d’Or police crisis ultimately led to another funding boost from the provincial government. This cash will help keep the doors open at least until March 2017.

“We opened back in October because we were faced with kind of an emergency,” Hunter recalled. “The wet season was upon us, and it had already snowed. We found ourselves with 20 people downstairs at the Friendship Centre who had nowhere to go. La Piaule had no flexibility in its opening hours, so even knowing we were going to be under renovations and the place would be a construction site, we opened on an emergency basis.”

Hunter is glad that the stressful period of simultaneously opening the centre and providing services out of an unfinished building is over. She looks forward to marking the occasion.

“Hopefully a lot of our partners, local and Eeyou, will be able to join us for this beautiful event,” she said, noting that many of the people who frequent Willie’s Place are from Eeyou Istchee and have difficulty going home. “I can understand the context: the Cree communities are farther away from Val-d’Or, and there are a variety of different situations that make it so [Crees] get stuck in the city. There are all kinds of reasons that would make someone end up in the street.”


The original location of Willie’s Place

For the next year Willie’s Place will be able to run as planned – and a variety of stakeholders across Val-d’Or are very happy about that.

“After the 16-week pilot phase at the old Chateau Louis, we saw interesting results,” Hunter said. “There were fewer calls to police, less of a homeless presence in the emergency room, less public intoxication, and fewer people sleeping in bank ATMs. I think the best one is that we most likely saved lives – we saved people from freezing in the cold and getting pneumonia.”

To that end, she notes that in the past month, Willie’s Place has helped six people get into housing in Val-d’Or, where housing discrimination by many landlords make it difficult for any Native person to find an apartment, much less a homeless Native.

“It’s one thing to get them in, but the real work starts in keeping them there,” Hunter said. “They still remain in that fragile, vulnerable state until they take themselves into their own hands. It’s a slow process, but a very rewarding one.”

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