Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

It’s 8:15 p.m. on a Monday night, and Léonie Couture’s work day is far from over when she calls from her home to talk about Herstreet, the organization she started 16 years ago and still directs, that offers shelter, therapy and resources to homeless women in downtown Montreal. She had been too busy to talk at the office, writing a funding application that could secure a six-figure grant for Herstreet, so she offered to be interviewed outside office hours. In a soft and serious voice, she spends the next 90 minutes explaining the work that Herstreet does and talking about the women she sees on a daily basis – women she says many people would rather not see at all.

Couture  has worked with women in distress for more than 25 years. Before founding Herstreet, she worked for five years at an organization that supports women who have experienced rape or incest. She found that some women were “too hurt to be helped,” as they were dealing with issues of addiction, incest, violence, and were unable to function in basic ways, like keeping weekly appointments with support workers at the group.

“I found that the core issue for most women who were experiencing severe difficulties was the violence they had endured in their lives,” Couture explains. “It led to drugs, a loss of confidence in themselves, and so much suffering.
“As a feminist, I believed that we needed to find ways to that they could have access to help. They needed a place where they could go during the day if they wanted to talk, eat, or just be there, without any demands placed on them.”

And so, in 1994, she founded Herstreet, a tiny organization with a clear mission: to accept women exactly as they are, and offer them help if they want it, but not force them to take it. Herstreet now has 50 employees, two houses that offer short and long-term lodging for women, a variety of therapeutic approaches, and operates on a $1.5 million annual budget with funding from the federal and provincial governments and private donors.

Herstreet has grown, but the mission is the same. Couture  maintains workers and volunteers at Herstreet are trained to understand that behaviour deemed unacceptable in society, including loud or violent outbursts, are not to be quelled. Couture believes that these behaviours stem from the violence that women have experienced, and the excruciating physical and emotional suffering are the result.

“They have lived through enormous violence, and we want them to find their voice again,” she says. For many people, including those who work with homeless women, the population at Herstreet is “too ugly – they don’t want them because the way they express their pain can be really hard if they act paranoid or violent, and they are excluded from other shelters. For us it’s just normal. Without judgment, we give them time to gradually tell their stories.”
Herstreet’s mandate is to put in place mechanisms where staff can reach out to women who have been robbed of their ability to connect with the outside world, and help them to develop different survival skills.

In the grand scheme of things, as long as a woman isn’t posing a threat to another resident or a staff member, her behaviour will be accepted. That’s not to say it’s encouraged, Couture says, but it is essential that women feel as safe as they can, and know that no one at Herstreet is going to hurt them or insist that they change.

“If a woman is screaming for no apparent reason,” Couture  explains, “we’re not going to stop her. When she is finished, we may approach her and ask if she wants to talk, and see if there are other ways she could express the pain she’s experiencing, but we are not going to tell her that what she is doing is wrong.”

The approach was a first in Montreal. There are other shelters that do excellent work for women, but none that operates quite like Herstreet. The mandate includes raising awareness about women and homelessness. Couture  stresses that the degree of suffering of the women who find their way to Herstreet means that the goals are not to help them find a job.
“It’s not poverty that puts women in the street – it’s a consequence of being so badly hurt that she can’t work. I find it funny when they say why aren’t they working. Most never work,” she says. Survival is the goal, and successes are celebrated wherever they can be found, small as they might seem.

To demonstrate her point, Couture  tells the story of a women who lived in one of Herstreet’s residences. For two years, Couture  explains, she never once slept in the room. She slept on the floor just outside the room. Sleeping in a bedroom was terrifying because that is where the violence and trauma in her life began. No one at Herstreet questioned her about sleeping in the hallway, or asked her to sleep in her room. Her behaviour was accepted and over time, understood. This was what she needed to do to feel safe enough to go to sleep. One night, out of the blue, she started sleeping in her room, but on the floor next to the bed, fully clothed. The woman needed to feel she could flee in the middle of the night if she was threatened, Couture  notes.

It is hard to imagine, as Couture  recounts story after story of brutalized women who are in such dire situations, that we, as a society, don’t seem to draw a parallel between the violence that we know is happening to girls and women behind closed doors in every neighborhood in the country, and the women we see on the street. Couture says the common thread is suffering, and Herstreet’s goal is to offer an alternative, helping women to reclaim their agency.

Burnout seems a likely outcome of such emotionally demanding work, but Couture says that lots of training on remaining centered, a cohesive staff, and not losing sight of value of the work all  help. Sometimes it’s about remembering that everyone is hurt in some way, even though not everyone lands on the street. These are exceptional women who deserve support.

As we wrap up our marathon conversation, Couture looks to the future. “We’re always in the process of creating things to compensate for reinsertion systems that don’t work. We need to create them for more fragile people.” For Couture, it’s all about “changing the world,” one step at a time.

Jane Shulman is the Director of Knowledge Exchange at the Canadian Women’s Health Network

This story was originally published in Progressive Choices  Magazine and  Herizons. Couture continues to direct Herstreet, and in a recent conversation, she noted that the shelter continues to offer unique services to homeless women, embracing them as they are, but Couture has spent a great deal of time thinking about how to offer even more support.

“We have deepened our reflections about the ways that we can help women heal the wounds that they have when they come here,” she says. “ We have been looking at the theories of relational health as they relate to relationship-building. If the women can work with those wounds, they may be able to reconnect with the world, be less excluded, and find a path from homelessness.”