The Transformation of Chez Doris

My Journey to Chez Doris

Being an Executive Director in the social service sector is more than just a job—it’s a calling that enables me to leverage my skills, experiences, and passion to tackle social issues and inspire others to do the same. I am deeply committed to advancing the mission and vision of the organizations I serve, and I consider it a privilege to work alongside passionate individuals who share this commitment.

My journey in this field began at the age of 17 when I started volunteering at a drug rehab center—a commitment that continued throughout my undergraduate studies in psychology. Although I initially intended to become a psychologist, my perspective shifted after an internship at the Montreal Women’s Center, where I observed both its Executive Director and Coordinator of Services in action. This experience led me to pursue a graduate diploma in Applied Management, a program structured around the case study method, which honed my critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities by analyzing real-world business scenarios. Since then, I’ve approached challenges with a mindset of continuous improvement, always striving to find ways to make a positive impact.

In 1988, at the age of 24, I assumed my first Executive Director role at Tel-Aide, a 24-hour crisis line. Over the years, I held senior positions in Montreal and New York City, working with organizations at both local and national levels. Fast forward to 2014, during a period of consulting and transition between jobs, an email from Donat Savoie, an anthropologist specializing in indigenous affairs, particularly the Inuit of Northern Canada, captured my attention. He forwarded an article from the Nunatsiaq News concerning Chez Doris, a prominent Montreal women’s day shelter that was facing closure on weekends due to funding issues. This news stirred a mix of outrage and dismay within me. A political attaché for Marc Garneau’s office (then a Federal Member of Parliament) arranged a meeting for me with the President of the Board at Chez Doris to explore ways I could assist. Unfortunately, the Board President resigned shortly thereafter, along with several other Board members. As a result, I engaged in discussions with the remaining four Board members and was ultimately hired as the Interim Executive Director.


Chez Doris’ Origins

Chez Doris derives its name from Doris Halfkenny Seale, also known as Doris Toussaint, a destitute woman originally from Halifax. In the 1970s, she was among many struggling women on the streets of Montreal. Their plight caught the attention of a local community worker who, through interviews, aimed to grasp their most urgent needs. When asked, Doris expressed a simple yet profound desire: “A place to go without prying eyes and too many questions.” This poignant response encapsulated the silent suffering of a marginalized community largely ignored by society. Tragically, on November 2, 1974, Doris fell victim to a brutal assault.

In response to this tragedy, concerned citizens from various sectors, including churches, community groups, and social agencies, united to form the Women’s Shelter Foundation in 1975. Among them was Sister Dolorès Coulombe, a Grey Nun, who spearheaded efforts to secure grants for a day center. Officially incorporated on April 1, 1977, as the Chez Doris Women’s Shelter Foundation, the organization received a federal grant of $20,400, enabling the leasing of a space on Mountain Street which was used as a drop-in center offering a safe space for women by providing a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup. Within the first year, over 100 women, spanning ages 18 to 80, found refuge and support.


Chez Doris’ Evolution/Growth

By 1986, Chez Doris had acquired a row house near the old Forum, marking a significant milestone in its journey. With the successful culmination of a capital campaign by the summer of 1989, the organization attained full ownership of its property, signaling financial stability and growth. As demand for its services increased, Chez Doris realized the need for larger premises, leading to the strategic exchange of its original building at 2196 De Maisonneuve Ouest, valued at $195,000, for a more spacious one located around the corner at 1430 Chomedey in 1994, valued at $300,000. Subsequent expansions in 2004 further enhanced the facility, enabling Chez Doris to extend its reach and impact. A framed portrait of Doris graces the entrance of our day shelter, serving as a poignant reminder of the ongoing need for protection, understanding, empathy, and support for women who are overcoming adversity. Annually, well over a thousand women walk through the doors of the Chez Doris shelter seeking help.

Today, Chez Doris’ mission is to support and empower any woman in a precarious situation preventing her from reaching her full potential. We offer a wide range of services within safe spaces where women can find help and comfort without judgment. Among other things, we provide food, clothing, a night and day shelter, housing solutions, personal comfort, and offer the women practical assistance in dealing with their challenges and difficulties. We respect the fact that success can be defined differently by each woman.


Past Challenges

Between 2009 and 2014, the organization lost three Executive Directors in quick succession. Chez Doris faced a growing deficit, ending its fiscal year on March 31, 2014, with revenues of $843,989, expenses of $947,495, and a deficit of $103,506. Consequently, the Board decided to temporarily close the shelter’s weekend operations as of May 31, 2014, fearing that the deficit would exceed its line of credit of $200,000. Staff was reduced to 11 employees, and many Board members resigned due to concerns about the organization’s financial stability.

When I was initially hired as the Interim Executive Director, my main objective was to find funding to restore its weekend operations, and to hire a permanent Executive Director. Funding was obtained and weekend services were re-launched on February 1, 2015. However, finding an Executive Director proved to be challenging, and I offered the Board my candidacy, which was accepted.


Initial Improvements

My initial goal was to modernize our small grassroots organization and implement new programs while enhancing existing ones. We upgraded our technology, phone, and security systems, launched a new website, reconfigured our office and program space to accommodate more people, provided a new Human Resource Manual and updated job descriptions for our employees, initiated performance reviews, improved compensation, analyzed our clients’ needs to better serve them, developed our volunteer program, implemented a housing search and support program, and strengthened our Board with individuals possessing the necessary skill sets.

However, during this period, our biggest challenge arose when our building was found to be structurally unsound, necessitating significant interior and exterior repairs. Leaks occurred with each winter thaw and heavy spring rain, leading to mold growth, while aging plumbing allowed rats to intrude. Consequently, the building needed to be salvaged and brought up to code. Providing services from within the building during extensive repairs required stamina from all staff. The renovations included replacing foundations, rebuilding the entire walls on the south side of the building, upgrading underground plumbing, and acquiring new furniture and cabinetry to meet safety and hygiene standards.


The Transformational Donation

In 2017 we noticed an increase of women asking to use the shower and ask for emergency clothing, both of which are indicators of homelessness. As well, every day when we’d close at 3 PM, we saw a troubling number of homeless women with nowhere to go. According to the second Montreal census on homelessness, conducted on April 24, 2018, it was estimated at that time that there were 3,149 visibly homeless people on the island of Montreal and that close to 25% of them were women. Depending on the time of year, only 10-14% of beds are reserved for women, despite them making up close to a quarter of the homeless population. Consequently, the Chez Doris Board of Directors decided that we should step up to the plate and do our part to solve the problem.

In 2018 Chez Doris had the good fortune of receiving an unexpected gift of $1 million from Andrew Harper, who is now deceased. One person’s philanthropy can be a powerful leverage for others to follow and make a big difference in the lives of fellow citizens and the community at large. As a result of this gift, we purchased a townhouse across the street from our day shelter and announced to the media that we hoped that it would be converted into an emergency overnight shelter for homeless women. Soon afterwards, the City of Montreal, the provincial government, and the federal government followed with three grants of a million or more for a combined total of $5 million. We also had the good fortune of being offered a residential building to be built for us with 26 studio apartments for homeless women by the Société d’Habitation et de Développement de Montréal.

We then drew up a budget totaling $10 million for a five-year period to cover the operational costs of both the future shelter and residence, primarily sourced from the private sector. Additionally, we were fortunate to connect with dedicated volunteers who formed our campaign cabinet, spearheading fundraising efforts on our behalf.


Organizational Growth

Between 2015 and 2020, our staff expanded from 11 to 24 members, encompassing various roles such as assistant director, administrative assistant, weekend caseworkers, cooks, a volunteer coordinator, a bookkeeper, and caseworkers for Indigenous programming. With the onset of the pandemic, we swiftly transitioned to 24/7 operations, responding to urgent calls from Indigenous community leaders. This expansion saw our staff increase to 50 individuals, enabling us to implement additional shifts, extend the operating hours of our day shelter, provide supper, and oversee temporary overnight accommodations at a hotel. In 2021, a grant from the Secretariat de la condition feminine facilitated the rental of office space, addressing pandemic-related challenges while also expanding our housing search and support program. The ground floor now functions as our community center, offering a range of medical, social, and recreational services.

By 2022, we successfully completed the renovation of the townhouse bought in 2018 that was converted into an overnight shelter with 24 beds for homeless women. In 2023, we launched two residences comprising 26 studio apartments and 20 rooms with communal areas. This growth prompted the formal establishment of departments for Human Resources, Fundraising, Finance, Facilities Management, and Programs and Services, all housed within an additional 4,000 square feet of rented space, and our operations now span across the following five locations: a day shelter, night shelter, two residences, and a community center. Our day shelter services include: breakfast, lunch, dinner; telephone information and referral assistance; access to showers, hygienic products, respite beds during the day, and a clothing depot; the night shelter offers 24 overnight beds for women experiencing homelessness; our community center offers grocery gift cards, a financial management program, activities for Indigenous women, a housing placement and support program for women experiencing homelessness, weekly health and mental health services, legal & tax filing services, a scholarship program as well as educational and socio-recreational integration programs.


Chez Doris Today

With hard work, in over nine years, our operational revenues grew from $950,000 to nearly $8 million, allowing us to expand to these five locations, offer a broader range of services and progressively increase the pay scales and benefits of staff. Currently, our team consists of 66 full-time positions and 16 part-time positions, but positions remain to be filled, especially within our day shelter.
To enhance our capacity, we are implementing training programs and professional development opportunities more formally, aimed at enriching the skills and expertise of our team members. Additionally, we have introduced software for Human Resource Management, Fundraising Management, Accounting, and Program Management, with the goal of improving the tracking and management of our organizational resources. We continue to upgrade our facilities and infrastructure to create more comfortable and welcoming spaces for both our clients and staff.

Recognizing that many of the women we assist lack autonomy, we see the need for a transitional shelter where they can stabilize and gain independence within a period of 3 months to 2 years before transitioning to permanent housing. In response to a government call for proposals to address housing needs, we acquired a small hotel in February 2023, with plans to convert it into transitional housing by 2025. Through our real estate investments, Chez Doris has seen substantial growth in assets, increasing from $1,177,911 in 2013-2014 to $19,471,130 by 2023-2024.


Successful Fundraising

Donat Savoie was the first to mentor me at Chez Doris, guiding me through introductions to city officials and individuals in Quebec to secure additional funding for reopening our weekend operations. The second person to help was Kim Fuller of Phil, who also generously contributed her time and expertise in the early days, dedicating her efforts to enhancing our fundraising endeavors by redesigning our newsletters and direct mail campaigns. In 2014, the organization had 487 donors; today, that number has exceeded 15,000. Since then, we have actively pursued funds from both the private sector and government through proposals and cases for support addressing both recurring and non-recurring needs. Utilizing prospect research software such as CharityCan, we identify individuals, foundations, and companies with a propensity, capacity, and interest in supporting our causes. We diligently respond to requests for proposals, prioritizing those with higher potential for success. As our budget and ambitions grew, we engaged a top firm to lead a major campaign, and their consultants proved invaluable in recruiting volunteers to assist with fundraising for two of our new services. I consider all of those who have helped with the campaign great friends, including Elizabeth Wirth. I appreciate each one of my Board and committee members not only for their wise advice but also for their contributions in communications, marketing, finance, architecture, construction, law, and HR, as well as their courage to take risks. I hold great appreciation for every staff member, intern, and volunteer who has contributed to our mission; their dedication and the gratitude of our clients towards them are deeply rewarding. Over the years, the donors I have encountered, regardless of their contribution size, have demonstrated remarkable kindness. Their generosity reflects a shared desire to make a positive impact in Montreal. And with that, always remember to say thank you. It’s important to pick up the phone and express your appreciation.


Today’s Challenges

The growing number of women experiencing homelessness in Montreal underscores the urgent need for permanent housing solutions and robust community services to prevent homelessness. By 2022, homelessness had increased by 48.9% to 4,690 people, with women constituting 33% of this population. Prior to the pandemic, there were only 148 shelter beds for women out of 845, increasing marginally to 203 out of 1,752 beds post-pandemic, highlighting the persistent scarcity of resources for women. Many organizations have expanded their services since the pandemic, transitioning to round-the-clock operations to meet the increased demand.

I often reminisce about the days when I knew every client by name and was familiar with all the caseworkers and volunteers, receiving a warm hug from our clients daily. However, my interactions with clients are now fewer, mainly limited to giving tours in our new buildings.

Nevertheless, despite these changes, we’ve expanded our impact and offer more meaningful assistance to women in need. However, amidst this progress, there’s a sense of loss. Our organization is at a crucial moment, striving to meet growing demand and provide comprehensive care to women in need. While our expansion has broadened our reach and enriched our services, we’re also addressing internal challenges, particularly the need to strengthen our organizational structure for greater cohesion. Addressing staff dissatisfaction with various aspects of our operations is crucial, given turnover among caseworkers. Despite the challenges, we’re optimistic about future growth and improvement, and with determination and collaboration, we’re confident we can continue making a positive impact.

In my opinion, despite the rapid growth spurred by the pandemic and the housing crisis, taking action is always preferable to standing still. As a community organization, we pride ourselves on our agility and willingness to rise to the occasion, addressing needs as they arise. Despite the hurdles we face, our dedication to empowering and supporting women remains steadfast. We continually strive to enhance our services and better serve our community. However, we recognize that we cannot achieve our goals alone. Collaboration is key, and we call upon all levels of government and the private sector to provide sustained support for critical initiatives such as housing assistance, homelessness and crime prevention, aid for the vulnerable, and expanded mental health and addiction services.

We remain hopeful that donors will continue to support us. Their contributions have a tangible impact on the lives of the women we assist, improving quality of life, increasing opportunities for advancement, and reducing vulnerability to exploitation. This positive impact extends beyond individuals, benefiting families and communities alike. Together, we are shaping a brighter future for those in need, including their children. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

What lies ahead? That may be another chapter 😉

Marina Boulos-Winton

Marina Boulos-Winton

Former Executive Director Chez Doris