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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ma Cabane, a day centre for Sherbrooke’s homeless and vulnerable population, opened its doors last week close in the heart of downtown, after spending years on the back burner.

The day centre, located at 46 King Street East, acts as a safe haven for people seeking shelter from the cold, looking for a hot cup of coffee, or even a warm jacket. The idea to develop the space was put forward several years ago.

The project was conceived by the Coalition sherbrookoise pour le travail de rue. The group was able to get construction underway after it received much-needed funding from various entities, including the CIUSSS de l’Estrie - CHUS and the city of Sherbrooke.

Elyse Girard Beaulieu, a community worker at Ma Cabane, said since the centre opened, they have been at-capacity almost every day. They can allow 10 people inside at a time, she explained, this is the maximum allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“They come once and they come back, they like this place a lot,” Beaulieu said, adding that last week many people spent an entire day inside the new space.

They haven’t had any trouble yet keeping up with demand. The centre is new, so there aren’t any line ups building up outside, she added, but Beaulieu expects to see a change soon, especially as the temperature drops.

When people leave Accueil Poirier, the local homeless shelter, in the morning, they need a place to blow off steam and occupy their day, she continued. Times have changed due to Covid, according to Beaulieu, homeless people were forced to adjust their routines.

“I know it’s difficult for them because normally during the day they can warm up in a coffee shop or Tim Hortons; they go to different areas,” she said.

With a new curfew put in place by the Quebec government, Ma Cabane also needed to fix its schedule. They close up shop a bit earlier in the evening now, but it’s open all day, Bealieu told The Record.

The day centre also doesn’t limit who is allowed inside. Beaulieu said it doesn’t matter if they are intoxicated or in distress, the purpose of Ma Cabane is to lend an ear and gently nudge people in the right direction if they need more help.

“The people here don’t feel judged,” she said. “The only restriction is you need to wash your hands and wear a mask.”

What Bealieu has noticed is most people walking through the centre’s front entrance are simply tired and looking for a place to rest. They are exhausted, she said, they spend a lot of time sleeping on the tables.

“This morning the fire alarm was ringing for 45 minutes because of an apartment upstairs, but people were like ‘we don’t care, we’re just warming up and it just feels good to drink our coffee,’ so there’s really a need for a place like this,” Beaulieu said.

While there is coffee on hand, board games, colouring sheets and bathrooms, the centre is still fresh, and there are a lot of modifications coming in the next few months. However, they are currently on pause because of the pandemic.

There are plans to build a shower area, install a washer and dryer for clothes, and create a larger gathering space in the back. As it stands, they don’t provide any food, but Beaulieu believes they will get there one day.

“We don’t have food preparation yet, we don’t even have a sink, but Rock-Guertin gave us some food and they will continue to give us some food,” she said. Fondation Rock-Guertin collects bottles and cans to help people dealing with food security.

A man sitting at one of the tables in the day centre spoke to The Record, though he chose to remain anonymous. He said it was his first day visiting Ma Cabane. The ambiance is nice, he added, and the people are pleasant.

The man said he is 37 years old. He has been homeless for three days, after being kicked out of his home in a nearby municipality, last week. He came to Sherbrooke seeking shelter and resources to get back on his feet.

He said that he is a former military veteran, having worked with the air cadets for 11 years. The centre provides a necessary reprieve for his cold hands, he added, and there are people to socialize with. However, he doesn’t plan to spend too much time in Sherbrooke.

“I’m resting a bit, moving, and thinking about what I really want,” he said, adding that his goal is to find lodging close to his children.

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