Sam Watts enjoyed a successful business career, primarily as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry before being recruited to become the CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission. His combination of business acumen and a desire to help less fortunate people has brought a renewed vigor and expanded services to the mission that was founded in 1892.

At the beginning of our conversation, I asked Sam to tell me who he is, and he replied; “I’m a guy who likes to go kayaking on Lake Of Two Mountains.” During the course of our interview, I came to appreciate that Sam Watts is a highly effective executive and communicator, dedicated to constantly improving the services offered to Montreal’s less fortunate and homeless population. He firmly believes that there are solutions to effectively eliminate homelessness, and enabling people to regain control of their lives and become contributing members of society.

“My parents gave my siblings and me the desire to help and serve those in need. While working with some of the major pharmaceutical companies on the West Island, I also did pro-bono work for not-for-profit organizations, so I had a feel for the needs of that sector.” Continuing Sam adds; “My job was to help businesses perform better. We’d ask. ‘How can we make a team perform better?’ We helped the companies understand their assets, their people and the clients they served. We apply that same discipline and thinking to the Welcome Hall Mission, the people we serve and the conditions that brought them to us.”

Sam describes how he came to the Mission. “I was contacted by a recruiting agency to ask if I was interested in taking on the job of CEO. Frankly, I was a bit cool to the idea. When I went home and told my wife about the offer, and that I would probably decline the invitation, she exclaimed – ‘What?! Sam this is like the Montreal Canadiens offering you an important job – you’ve gotta take it!’ With a chuckle Sam adds; “And so here I am.”

Sam Watts

Mayor Valerie Plante (centre) volunteered to assist Sam (left) and the Welcome Hall team to assist Georges Laraque’s (right) distribution 3,000 free vegan meals on June 26th
Photo: Eva Blue

“Welcome Hall Mission operates in eight buildings, maintains two (free) grocery stores, employs 150 people and has a $25 million operating budget. It’s like running a medium-sized company.”

“We are front line urban healthcare providers; and our first priority when someone comes through our door is to provide food and shelter. We offer many other services – but before we can do any of that, we’ve got to provide the basics.”

Once the person is stabilized, Sam and his colleagues have learned that it is important develop a treatment and counseling program to equip a person with the skills needed to get a job, a place to live and follow-up support.

“Food security is a key element of our organization. There are a lot of people who are only a few dollars from being on the outside and looking in.”

Sam brings a different understanding to the approach of ‘offering a helping hand instead of a hand-out’. “If all we do is give charity to needy people, we’re not addressing the problem. Without assistance to help break the cycle of relying on charity, that person we helped today will be back tomorrow or the next day.”

“Along with the heads of similar organizations like Michael Pearce at The Old Brewery Mission, we realized that if all we were giving was charity – albeit well-intentioned – that maybe we were part of the problem. We needed to define and offer solutions, and to develop an institutional capacity to provide those solutions for our ‘clients’. We also knew that because every person is different and their problems are unique – we had to have solutions that we could adapt to each of our clients.”

Sam Watts

A determined Sam Watts firmly believes that solutions can be found to eradicate homelessness

“Welcome Hall Mission has a referral centre, so that we can help the people we serve to get medical and dental appointments. We provide what we call ‘warm introductions’ to other services – so that our client isn’t going in cold. Very often our referral is to an existing service that our client didn’t know existed.”

“A big part of our referral service involves assistance in getting documentation. At the beginning it may be as basic as getting an address so they can open a bank account; apply for government education and/or certification programs. You never know what kind of impact these initiatives can have until they happen. We had a man come to us as a refugee. Turns out he was an architect and we hired him to work in our warehouse – where he’s making a valuable contribution.”

“We can’t prevent someone from falling into homelessness, but we can have a system in place to help them resolve their situation in a few weeks and get them back into housing. We have what amounts to an Emergency Room and we provide coordinated access for our clients. It’s important to act quickly. Once a person has been homeless for weeks, months and even years – they adapt to that situation and it becomes much harder for them to break out of that cycle. That’s why its important for us to provide resources and support quickly.”

“We gotta do better that this!” was Sam’s reaction to the tent community that sprang up along Notre Dame in the summer of 2020. “Let’s go and talk to the people and see what we can do. Once you get what becomes a tent city – it’s too late. This may sound a little rough, but public spaces are meant to be used by everyone. I reject the notion that a public space be ceded to a homeless population. It’s not a positive solution for the people living there, and it can also be dangerous.”

Working with various levels of government and other partners, Sam and his colleagues arranged to have the Hotel Place Dupuis (empty because of COVID) converted to provide housing for homeless people.

The ‘experiment’ has proven to be a huge success – although there is still work to be done. “We have a 91% success rate of keeping people in housing. From that fresh start, most previously homeless people move forward with their lives in positive way. At a press conference with Mayor Valerie Plante, one of the couples that took our offer of a room and who were scheduled to speak did not attend. Instead of being disappointed, we were happy to announce that they both had jobs and that’s why they couldn’t attend. During the pandemic, we were able to get three hundred people off the street and into housing.”

“When we get someone into a home, we reduce all kinds of costs to society; reduced police costs, reduced emergency health services – including first responders… the list goes on.”

Sam Watts

Sam and former NHL star Georges Laraque with a
Welcome Hall Mission van used in support of the mission’s
food security programs
Photo: Eva Blue

“We say that as a society we care about people, and the three levels of government have aligned and responded. Working with the federal, provincial and municipal governments, we’ll be moving our homeless transition shelter to Hotel Dieu Hospital.”

“We’re providing an urban health care solution oriented towards housing – that is housing centric. Part of our program involves providing mental health services staffed by the Jewish General Hospital Department of Psychiatry. The doctors come to one of our locations instead of the hospital; which can be intimidating for a recently homeless person. Many of our clients have suffered traumatic situations – both physical and psychological, and some have suffered deep traumas. You just have to stick with it and not give up on them. I recognize that for some, the mental illness is so profound that they may never work again – but we need to look after them.”

“We’re in our summer campaign called Montreal Helps Montreal, and the best way to help is to be a donor – to give us the resources to do our job. If you’re a little younger and more agile, become a volunteer – especially at one of our food stores.”

“I want people to understand that emergency help is part of a continuum that eventually leads to a homeless person becoming self-sufficient and a contributing member of society. We need to get away from charity solutions that don’t address the source of the person’s problem.”

“Welcome Hall Mission was built for a crisis. When COVID came – we responded and maintained our services because this is what we do. I’m surrounded by a team of high performing, high capacity full time employees and volunteers who are continually coming up with ideas how to better deliver or initiate new services. We’ll say; ‘Let’s ask ourselves three or four questions and see where we can take this idea.’

I have borrowed part of Sam’s statement from the Mission’s website because it contains an unexpected word… ‘love’. Here it is: “We plan to lead a movement that will make shelter, food and love a reality for each person in Montreal. We believe everyone should be able to access affordable housing, eat healthy food and experience the loving embrace of community.” Over to you dear reader…

For more information about Welcome Hall Mission, the services offered and how to donate, please visit: