Homelessness and mental health

Montreal church controversy shows we haven’t learned from our history

Photo: Flavio Freitas

Officials from downtown church St James Montréal recently took “objectifying and humiliating” photos of homeless people, according to an administrator at a drop-in centre located in the church.

The St-James Drop-In Centre is a day refuge for homeless people and has been housed for years in the basement of St James, an Anglican church on Saint Catherine Street.

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Church officials snapped the dehumanizing photos, which included an image of a man urinating, as part of their effort to get the centre to keep its clients in line and out of sight. The church wants clients to stay off the lawn and enter the property using a back door.

The drop-in centre is now looking for a new home after deciding not to renew the lease with the church. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette this month, James Falconer, an administrator with the centre, said that the use of the church lawn improved the quality of clients’ lives and that the church wanted his clients to be invisible.

Studies have found two-thirds of those who use urban shelters in Canada have some form of mental illness. We often treat them like they are invisible. Most of us turn our eyes away from people curled up in sleeping bags, lying in the dark, dusty corridors of metro stations.

But this wasn’t always the case.

It seems pretty strange to think about it now, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, people often spent their Saturday afternoons strolling through asylums so they could look at the “lunatics.”

Asylum tours were a favourite pastime, one that parents would treat their children to. At London’s infamous Bedlam asylum, visits peaked over Easter weekend and during the Christmas holidays.

By the 19th century, asylums had stopped putting psychiatric patients on display and charging admission to spectators. In North America, tourist brochures began to promote asylums as places where visitors could observe beautiful lawns, gardens and stately architecture, rather than mentally ill people.

According to some historians, one of the consequences of asylum tourism, and the heightened visibility of those with mental illness, was more compassion. Over the course of centuries, morbid curiosity about mental illness was transformed into empathy.

In the late 18th century a new “moral therapy” was introduced. It was thought that by engaging people with psychiatric disorders in meaningful work and beautifying their surroundings, mental illness could be cured.

This theory was brought to Montreal in 1881, when the English Protestant community founded what is now referred to as The Douglas Hospital. Like many progressive asylums of the time, The Douglas was a working farm. Patients tended to livestock and grew vegetables. Orchestras were even brought in so that dances could be held on weekends and holidays.

Asylums like The Douglas were surrounded by vast fields and located on the outskirts of the city. It wasn’t long before the mentally ill were forgotten again. Asylums became overcrowded and conditions deteriorated.

Beginning in the 1940s, there were once again calls for reform. During the 1960s and 70s, mass deinstitutionalization occurred in Canada. The move was in part justified by the discovery of new medications, which made it possible for some people with mental illness to live independently and lead full meaningful lives.

But for many people, the promised community care never materialized. When the doors of the asylums were flung open, street corners and temporary shelters became the new homes for a large majority of people who live with severe mental illnesses.

These days, people who live with mental illness are no longer the objects of our curiosity. And it’s tempting to think we’ve progressed from the days of the old asylums, when patients were treated like animals in a zoo.

But the attitude of the St James church indicates we’ve taken one step forward and two steps back. The humiliating and objectifying photos that were taken of homeless clients are an eerie recollection of days gone by.

Our society often ignores the inconvenient truth huddling in a metro station or trying to sleep on a park bench. The St James church seems to think it’s acceptable to subject people with mental health issues to that indignity too.

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