A drop-in centre’s criticism of its former host church has sparked controversy, concern and debate among Anglicans in Montreal and across Canada over how churches should relate to the homeless and marginalized.
A May 11 statement from the St-James Drop-In Centre board of directors said that the centre was terminating its lease with St. James Montreal, a recently launched church plant in the city’s heart, due to alleged “negative and highly emotional interactions” and disrespectful treatment of drop-in members by a church leader. St. James Drop-In Centre, which has been active in downtown Montreal since 1985, serves people “struggling with issues related to homelessness, mental illness and addiction,” according to its website.
Drop-in members and staff said tension between the centre and the host church had been building since shortly after the parish of St. James the Apostle was closed last Christmas Eve and replaced with St. James Montreal, a church plant modelled after Holy Trinity Brompton, led by the Rev. Graham Singh. Matters came to a head last month when Singh asked the drop-in to sign a new lease including new security requirements that the drop-in’s board of directors felt would compromise its ability to serve members.
“The proposed lease…represented a radical departure from our vision of a supportive, long-term tenancy relationship,” the board said in a statement. The new lease would require members to enter using a back-alley fire escape rather than the usual entrance, prohibit them from using the church’s green space and give church leadership the discretionary power to deny entrance to members and staff.
When contacted by the Anglican Journal, Singh said that he is simply concerned about the safety of church staff and other tenants, and said that the new lease was drafted in the spirit of the diocese of Montreal’s Safe Church Policy.
He said he had seen multiple incidents of drop-in members defecating and urinating on the church grounds, and that he had photographed some of them and brought the images to the drop-in staff, asking them to do something about it, but they were unresponsive.
He also said he witnessed cases where drop-in members behaved in threatening and aggressive ways toward church staff, but that these concerns were not addressed either.
“There are issues that have been taken to the police repeatedly, but the church has chosen not to prosecute them,” he said, noting that while he is sympathetic to the struggles homeless people face, he is worried about the safety of his staff and other tenants. “These are serious issues-can you imagine if someone was attacked?” Singh was not willing to go on the record about the specifics of these incidents.
Sarah Berry, chair of the drop-in’s board, maintained that there have been no violent incidents involving drop-in members during Singh’s tenure.
“In over 30 years in the city, we have not had regular violent incidents, there is not a serious issue of public defecation or public urination,” she said. “He was only at the church for a couple of months-in fact, it was only a couple of weeks before he started imposing conditions. So to say that those conditions flow out of ongoing serious behaviours and interactions with the members doesn’t make sense.”
Berry also said that the decision not to renew the lease with St. James was only partially about the new stipulations: it also stemmed from more general concerns over the centre’s dealings with Singh.
“As we were in negotiations, our own interactions with Graham were not pleasant, and we were hearing from [centre] staff and from the members that they were having some very negative interactions with Graham as well,” she said, adding that Singh often responded to difficult situations using “anger and yelling.”
Singh denied ever behaving in an uncivil manner toward drop-in members or staff.
For 27 years, St. James Drop-in Centre was housed at St. James United Church, a few blocks east on Sainte-Catherine Street from St. James Montreal. When a fire in 2012 caused significant damage to the facilities the drop-in centre was using, Archdeacon Linda Borden Taylor, then-rector of St. James the Apostle, offered space in the church’s basement.
Alain Spitzer, the drop-in’s executive director, said the relationship with St. James the Apostle during Borden Taylor’s time was positive, and that when issues came up, they were dealt with in a respectful and professional fashion.
Attempts were made to reach Borden Taylor, but at press time she was unavailable for comment. The Journal was, however, able to speak with the Rev. Patricia Kirkpatrick, a professor at Montreal Diocesan College and, for 30 years, honorary assistant at St. James the Apostle.
Kirkpatrick described the relationship between church and drop-in centre during her time as being “very cordial,” and while her duties at St. James did not lead her to be personally involved with the drop-in, she could not recall ever having heard complaints about drop-in members’ violent behaviour.
“The congregation was happy to be able to know that it was able to provide this kind of sanctuary for members of the drop-in centre,” she said.
When asked what she thought of the concerns Singh had raised, she was skeptical of the notion that any disruptive behaviour on the church grounds could be directly attributed to the drop-in centre’s members, given the church’s location on one of the city’s major thoroughfares.
“Drop-in centre or no drop-in centre, you are not going to change the ecology of the downtown area by simply not having the centre there,” she said. “There are always going to be homeless people [downtown], regardless of whether or not there is a drop-in centre.”
She also questioned whether or not homeless people should bear all of the blame for offensive or unhygienic behaviour on church grounds.
“I have seen more men pee on the walls of St. James the Apostle as a consequence of consuming too much beer at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in broad daylight than I have ever known any homeless person to,” she said.
Both Spitzer and Singh agreed that things began positively enough when Singh started his tenure in early 2016, but they did not stay so for long.
Negotiations between the board and St. James Montreal did not improve the situation, and when the drop-in centre announced its intention to leave, a series of accusatory messages on Facebook were exchanged between Singh and Berry.
An attempt was made to patch up matters in the last weeks of May when Singh proposed the drop-in and the church enter into a “peace-making process” with the help of Glenn Smith, a former St. James Centre board member and executive director of urban ministry group Christian Direction.
Smith contacted both Singh and the drop-in with a list of requirements, including the stipulation that all public statements regarding relations between the church and the drop-in be taken down. Singh complied immediately, while Berry said she would be unable to do so without first discussing it with the rest of the board. Ultimately, the board decided doing so would not be in their best interests.
“Glenn said many times that it was not mediation, it was not reconciliation-we’re not using any of those words. This is just listening to each other,” Berry explained. “So what would be the purpose of this?…Everything had degraded at this point, we were already packing boxes…and there had been no intervention by Graham or by the bishop to have us stay.”
Smith was contacted by email, but declined to comment.
Since the story of the conflict between drop-in centre and church has spread through social media and coverage in the mainstream media, it has become symbolic of wider concerns in the Anglican church over how far the church should go in working with the economically marginalized.
Some have argued that the drop-in’s departure speaks to the church’s failure to protect the most vulnerable, while others have portrayed it as a balancing act between the church’s imperative to help the poor and its need to protect the safety of its members.
“The Anglican Church is committed to being a safe place for all its users,” Montreal Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson said in a statement drafted in response to the Journal’s request for comment. “It is unfortunate that the St. James Centre was not willing or able to manage our concerns and so chose to end their lease with St. James Church.”
The statement, signed by Executive Archdeacon Bill Gray, stressed the diocese’s support for Singh and its commitment to helping the homeless through other ministries, such as the St. Michael’s Mission housed at the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist, the weekday drop-in at St. Stephen’s, Westmount, and The Mile End Mission.
It also noted that other Anglican churches in the downtown core have been active in helping the St. James Drop-In Centre find alternate accommodation.
The centre is in negotiations with potential hosts, and Spitzer expects to hear by June 10 whether or not they have a new home.
Among its services, the St. James Drop-In offered art workshops facilitated by students at nearby Concordia University. Photo: St. James Drop-In Centre
In the meantime, the centre has vacated the church’s premises, short-term accommodation has been secured for its art program at Benedict Labre House, and its offices are now sharing space with Streetsuds, a social enterprise. The YMCA has allowed use of its space for some meetings.
According to Spitzer, about 240 people rely on the drop-in and before its departure from St. James, daily attendance was between 30-40 people.
Spitzer and Berry underlined that they do not view their conflict with Singh as being representative of Anglicans in Montreal. Spitzer, in particular, spoke of the support he has received from Anglicans and other Christians in Montreal and across the country during the course of the move-out.
“For all of the grief I’ve gotten in this situation, I’ve gotten an outpouring of letters, emails and phone calls from ministers across this city and this country telling me, ?Don’t give up on us: this in no way represents what we believe,’ ” he said. “So that is encouraging to me.”
Despite the various disagreements over how far the church should go in welcoming the homeless, it would seem that everyone involved agreed on one thing: the breakdown of relations between the church and the drop-in raises important questions about how the church should work with the most vulnerable.
“How can we make our places of worship available for all people to come and know more about who God is, but also be safe places for ministering to the most broken, the most poor?” Singh asked. “We can’t help everyone at any time at any cost.”
Spitzer sees it differently. “I understand his preference for not having to deal with [homeless people], but who will help? If the church will not be part of an answer for those who are the most difficult people, if the church is not part of that, then who is? I’d like to hear some concrete solutions that don’t involve banning people or barring people.”