Saturday, May 2, 2009
Mission: Mile End
For years, Luboslaw Hrywnak and I were neighbours without knowing it. Then, once I meet him, I see him everywhere. Our paths cross on Parc Avenue near his apartment building, or along St. Viateur, or outside the Mile End Mission where we first spoke.
He wears a blue parka or windbreaker, depending on the weather, and ambles as if lost in thought. He has wire-rimmed glasses and a white beard and takes drags on a cigarette with the intensity of a committed smoker.
I'd walked past the Mission on the corner of Bernard and St. Urbain a thousand times. When I finally go in to find out more about it, Mission director Roslyn Macgregor gets Lubo to fill me in.
"There are other places around town where you can get a free meal," he says, drinking coffee as the sun shines through the storefront windows filled with spider plants. "But this is different. It's smaller. More intimate and friendly. People get to know each other. For weeks in a row you sit at the same table, you recognize people by face. People are treated in an affable, personal manner."
Just like one of the neighbourhood cafes—although possibly friendlier.
Lubo sits at the edge of the room and people walk by saying, "Hi Lou," "Bonjour Lubo."
"I know everyone here today," he remarks.
Lubo has been coming to The Mission for almost 20 years, since it started as a soup kitchen in the basement of The Church of the Ascension (now the Mile End Library) on Parc Avenue.
He tells me he fell ill in his 20s while studying literature at Concordia and that he's on medical welfare which exempts him from work. "I don't have a paying job but I like to see people. I can come here and socialize and help out." Sometimes he carries in bags of donations or helps with the dishes.
Roslyn Macgregor is an Anglican priest at the Church of St Cuthbert, St Hilda and St Luke. She runs the Mission part-time and often sits at a table in the middle of the room, her eyes bright, white hair bobbing, as she juggles brainstorming and problem-solving with the staff.
To her mind, Lubo occupies a special role at the Mission. "He is for me a measure that what we do is of value," Roslyn says. "Being there for individual people, creating a home."
At noon, a volunteer cook comes out of the kitchen and asks if someone can wipe off the tables. People pull chairs out of the closet and pass cutlery and napkins around. Roslyn welcomes everyone, getting the crowd of a couple dozen to applaud for the volunteers.
Lubo stands to her left. It's a ritual they've been practicing for years. When she finishes, he says grace.
"God bless this food before us and give us the grace to get through what we have to," he begins, before switching to French and then Ukrainian. "Amin," he concludes, in Ukrainian and Roslyn echoes, "Amin!"
Macaroni salad is served.
From a certain angle, when you look at the fancy
bakeries, pricey restaurants and baby boutiques, 21st century Mile End doesn't seem like a place that needs its own soup kitchen or food bank.
But bordering the streets of triplexes and little gardens where à vendre real estate signs turn to acheté! overnight, there are low-rent apartment buildings on St-Laurent and Parc Avenue where eviction is routinely spelled by supers pitching mattresses off fire escapes into the alley.
Some members of the Mission, like Lubo, live in these buildings, some in the area's dwindling number of un-gentrified apartments, and some sleep under the Rosemont bridge.
"If you have a financial problem or a landlord problem the priest can help," Lubo tells me. "Rosyln has helped me in the past," he adds. Roslyn has been Mission director for 14 years while the neighbourhood has turned into a trendier and wealthier place.
Currently there's a lot of local discussion about the development and potential upscaling of St-Viateur East. Factories that once housed the garment industry may be turned into multimedia studios and new housing.
"What about the poor?" Roslyn wants to know. "Whatever new housing is developed, a percentage of it should be social housing."
After lunch, people browse through the jumble of clothes for sale. The stray gray cat the Mission has adopted wakes up from a nest of sweaters and jumps down from the shelf.
"I'm getting $10 - $11,000 on welfare," Lubo says. "My survival is guaranteed. Still, I can see room for improvement. The poverty line in Canada is $25,000.
"One time in my life I begged a guy for a dollar. He refused. I decided never again. When I see someone eating calmly in a fancy restaurant I don't get mad at them. But I could. It's unbalanced. "
Lubo and I have the same little notebooks. Like me, he's filled up a lot of them. He says he has hundreds of pages of journal entries. Unlike me, he writes his in Ukrainian.
I ask him to read a page and he translates a few words in a low voice. "Today is Easter and I read a little bit of the Bible...I feel my own goodness often..." he reads.
"I write every day, " he says. "I don't work but I have time to develop as a human being, to grow in consciousness, have compassion." He closes his notebook and puts it back in his pocket.
"If I had money, I would buy more tobacco, better food more often and live in a better quality apartment. I wouldn't buy a house, I would rent an apartment, a nice one. I like my apartment but there's no romance in poverty."
Lubo looks around the room that has a colourful Bienvenue-Welcome banner strung up on a clothesline.
"I'm lucky I can come to the Mission," he says. "It can't fit all the poor people in the city."
Mile-End Mission 99 Bernard Ouest, Montreal The mission operates a foodbank on Fridays, serves three hot lunches a week and sells donated clothes for $1 a piece. It also offers computers with internet access, a free phone, a community art group, yoga and sewing classes, and a legal clinic. For more information go to: www.mileendmission.org