Those familiar with the Patricia Mackenzie Pavilion’s Women’s Services know Florence Portes well. A woman of action, Florence never backed down from a challenge during her years of dedication to the Old Brewery Mission. We revisit some of her remarkable achievements.
One day in 1998, Florence dropped her career as a journalist with national media outlets in France and embarked on an adventure: “I wanted to do something practical,” she says. So, she came to Quebec and knocked on the door of a homeless shelter in Montreal to volunteer her services. She got to know the residents of Maison Eugénie-Bernier, a rooming house for men experiencing chronic homelessness, connected with them, and helped them mount an exhibition of their work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Ever ready to take up fresh challenges, Florence then settled in New Zealand and worked as a social worker in a drug treatment centre: “It was an amazing multicultural experience, as well as an immersion in the Māori indigenous community,” she recalls.
Florence went back to France and worked in urban agriculture before returning to Montreal. Having often heard of the Old Brewery Mission, she went to see it for herself and was asked to join its Women’s Services. As a woman accustomed to navigating male-dominated spaces, this was a new world for her.
She is proud to have headed a close-knit and diverse team at Women’s Services. “I had colleagues who hailed from all over; it was a very rich experience. We also had gender diversity, including one of Quebec’s first transgender staffers working with women.”
True to her humanist values, Florence takes an open and supportive approach: “We are here to welcome those who have less, who are hurt and need to get back on their feet—not tell them what to do, but guide them on their chosen path.”
Florence says making the shelter feel like a home is worth the effort: “It doesn’t take much to create a space that’s more than decent. I tried to make it attractive, comfortable, gracious, to make it an environment that facilitates recovery.”
To bring a different energy to the Patricia Mackenzie Pavilion, Florence asked the MU arts organization to create a striking mural for the entrance. “It defies the sometimes weepy image people have of homelessness and poverty,” she says. “Yes, it was daring to have that fuchsia and those incredible colours, but they brighten winter days and the mural was a way to say ‘We too are colourful!’”
In another daring move, Florence spearheaded the creation of transition housing for homeless women in the heart of Plateau Mont-Royal. “I’m a proponent of reverse gentrification,” she says. “The idea behind the Maison des voisines de Lanaudière was to show we can claim our place even in neighbourhoods where people are excluded due to spiralling housing prices or narrow views of social diversity. Beautiful places support recovery; so do vibrant neighbourhoods.”
A year and a half ago, Florence took on a new responsibility: developing a stock of real estate for the Old Brewery Mission. In response to the shortage of affordable housing, the Mission decided to build: “It shows the organization’s willingness to shift into higher gear,” she says.
In 18 months, five projects have been launched and 75 housing units are now under construction in Lachine, Ville-Marie, Saint-Michel and Plateau Mont-Royal. “It was highly ambitious to say we’ll become landlords to house our people,” Florence explains. For the individuals assisted by the Mission, finding suitable housing once they are off the streets can be an insurmountable obstacle.
After all these years, wanderlust calls. Florence will soon leave Quebec to settle in Texas. “What will I miss? Handing over apartment keys to Ginette, Martin, Alphonse and Mohamed, seeing people blossom in these places and remake them in their own image, turning them into places they can be proud of.”
“Florence’s stay with us has left its mark,” says James Hughes, the Mission’s President and CEO. “Her humanity, her social and political engagement have left a lasting impression on the Old Brewery Mission. We’ve been privileged to have her with us all this time.”
After 13 years with the Old Brewery Mission, Florence Portes is hitting the road again. We bet that everywhere she goes, she’ll bring beauty with her, while thumbing her nose at a few conventions along the way.