Matthew Pearce (BA’79): Breaking the cycle
By Mark Campbell
Matthew Pearce (BA’79) always knew a conventional nine-to-five job was not in the cards for him.
“If I was going to devote that much energy and attention to something, it had to go beyond my own self-interest,” he says.
“I wanted to be able to sit on my porch in my retirement and say that my efforts contributed to something that made a difference.”
A lifetime of community involvement
That desire has been the catalyst for a long and impressive career of community and global involvement, beginning with Canada World Youth (CWY) as a project leader in Jamaica in 1983. The organization’s international volunteer program gives young people opportunities to participate in community-driven development projects and acquire leadership skills to become agents of change. Pearce spent 22 years with CWY – the last five as its CEO. Under his leadership, it grew in scope and scale to provide the most international exchanges in the organization’s history.
“This was a training ground for global citizenship and the promotion of peace,” says Pearce. “Many of the young people I worked with became skilled diplomats, better at interpersonal relationships and more attuned to their role in society. The values they learned hold the promise for a more peaceful planet.”
For Pearce, the most rewarding aspect of CWY was helping young people articulate what they learned through their experiences and translate it into new skills. “When you’re able to do that, you begin to understand and value other perspectives, and you can bring those realizations into any career you choose, both for your benefit and the benefit of others. That’s where I feel I was able to make a significant contribution.”
Since 2008, Pearce has served as CEO of Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission, leading its evolution from an organization that provides shelter for the homeless to one committed to the eradication of chronic homelessness.
Experience tells him it can be done. Each year, 600 Mission visitors leave the cycle of homelessness for jobs, entrepreneurship and more permanent housing, thanks to the programs it provides.
One such person is James, an older gentleman whose struggle with mental health issues made him a permanent fixture at the Mission for nearly 10 years.
“If you had seen him, you would have said, ‘That guy’s going to be homeless forever,’” says Pearce. “But we got him into our mental health program, working with psychiatrists, and after a week-and-a-half on proper medication, he stabilized. In another week-and-a-half, he was gone. And now, he lives in a supported living environment.
“If we could have given him those services 10 or 20 years ago,” Pearce adds, “maybe he never would have been homeless.”
Focused on potential
As important as access to services is in eradicating chronic homelessness, Pearce sees shifting public perceptions on the topic as equally crucial in making headway. He and his team have worked to communicate a message of hope that is in stark contrast with the doom and gloom typically associated with depictions of homelessness.
“Homelessness has been historically presented in the most dire way possible to convince people to make a donation. We started talking about the potential we see in the people who come to the Mission and the successes we have achieved in helping them break the cycle. That helped attract media coverage, and we would substantiate those successes in our interviews. Now, people know that there is much more going on at the Mission than soothing people’s hardships. And they see the same potential that we do.”
A time of discovery
Pearce’s success in encouraging new ways of thinking and his determination to make a difference were nurtured in part during his time at Dalhousie, where he pursued studies in history and political science.
“There were courses and professors that guided me into new ways of thinking, even about the way you think. I made discovery after discovery about myself, the world around me and our place in society. It was an intellectually and socially stimulating time, and it groomed me in the value of an open mind.”
Funding his dream
Today, Pearce is drawing on that Dalhousie spirit of open mindedness with the Mission’s most ambitious undertaking to date.
It has launched a $55-million fundraising campaign with the goal of providing affordable housing for 2,000 Montreal residents.
With the right resources, Pearce believes we could end chronic homelessness in as little as two or three years, and society would reap the benefits.
In that light, he’s particularly encouraged to see the federal government commit $2.3-billion to affordable housing, which could help make his dream come true.
A legacy of support
“This used to be the largest shelter in Montreal for men.
Now, we’re the smallest because our focus on transition programs is eliminating the need for shelters. Eventually, I see it closing, replaced by welcome centres where we can evaluate and refer people to services so they can live outside the realm of homelessness.”
Pearce realizes this would put him out of a job, but he sees many other social and political issues that could keep him busy for years to come.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had a career where I helped make a difference,” says Pearce. “That’s what I’ll be reflecting on when I eventually retire, and that’s what I hope people associate with me.”
Photos: Selena Phillips-Boyle