The street kids' champion

by Gary Francoeur

Every city has them: homeless kids huddled on street corners, in alleys and doorways, using tattered blankets and old newspapers in a desperate attempt to fend off bone-chilling temperatures. They are seen everywhere, and yet few of us ever take the time to look past the tattoos and piercings to the frightened children within.

It’s an ugly reality that Aki Tchitacov, BA’82, hates to think about. But as executive director of Dans la rue, a Montreal-based grassroots organization devoted to helping downtrodden youth get off the streets, it’s one he has to face on a daily basis.

“Life on the streets is tough,” he says. “What we do is provide an alternative resource for kids who have been marginalized and fallen through the cracks, so that we can help them break the cycle, become self-sufficient and take control of their lives.”

Dans la rue was founded in 1988 by Father Emmett Johns, DLitt’04, who cruised the city in a used motorhome to single-handedly offer street kids a safe place to eat and warm up. Today, the organization has ballooned to 65 employees and more than 135 volunteers, and provides a host of essential services, including the “Chez Pops” day centre that feeds and clothes as many as 200 kids a day, an overnight shelter that supplies a safe haven from criminals and predators, and a school that offers French, mathematics, music and art courses as well as employment and mentorship programs.

The organization also works closely with McGill on several fronts. The Faculty of Dentistry’s mobile dental clinic visits its day centre to give kids free check-ups, cleanings, fillings and other basic oral health services, while students from the Faculty of Law put their knowledge to work by providing youth with much-needed legal information at no charge.

While most street kids are, understandably, suspicious of outsiders, Tchitacov says Dans la rue has been able to build trust by being credible and adopting an approach based on respect, service and empathy. It’s a massive effort, but if it wasn’t for Tchitacov and his team, many of these kids would turn to theft, peddling drugs and prostitution to support themselves.

“It’s easy coming into work every day because I know that what we do here has a real impact,” he says. “We’re at ground zero in terms of social work. It’s very front line, very direct, very tangible and very humane.”

Born and raised in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in west-end Montreal, Tchitacov has made a career out of doing good deeds for others. He first caught the community service bug as a political science student at McGill, when he got involved in grassroots political organizing during the 1980 Quebec referendum. He loved working with the public so much that, after adding a master's degree in public administration from Concordia University to his repertoire, Tchitacov took on a job as director of development with the YMCA.

He served terms as the executive director of both the NDG and Point St-Charles wings of the YMCA, and when he learned in 1997 that Dans la rue was looking for someone to help start and run their first day centre, he leaped at the opportunity to work with Father Johns.

“Father Johns is the Bill Gates of community work,” he says. “He’s a man of great vision and he understands that successful social programs need to do more than just address basic needs – they need to provide all of the tools necessary to help people become truly autonomous.”

Now in his 15th year with Dans la rue, Tchitacov has touched hundreds of lives, but he continues to seek new ways reach out to homeless kids.

“We need to think outside the box,” he says. “The street is constantly changing and we have to keep our ear to the ground so that we can change with it. Young people have a right to expect a safe home, to be able to be children and to be able to dream.”

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