You would think that in a city like Ottawa, when a vulnerable citizen faces a crisis and loses their housing, there would be a system in place to support him in finding affordable housing.
And there is. But the truth is – the system is flawed.
Take Jack: a young man in his twenties with a history of trauma, family conflict, homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. He has worked hard over the past five years I’ve known him to make positive choices like getting sober and finding legitimate employment.
This summer, he lost his housing. He was devastated by the prospect of starting over again. With no family support, and not wanting to enter the shelter system, he opted for staying outside.
I worked hard with him to find housing. We applied for the Social Housing Registry, YMCA monthly housing, the Salvation Army Housing Response Team and any other housing wait lists we could find. Each time, Jack was put on a list and told to wait.
Every day, he spent hours searching for housing online or went to agencies that specialize is helping with housing – but there was very little he could afford. Even the bug infested rooming houses were often out of his price range.
As the months went on, and it began to get colder, Jack grew more desperate. He even questioned if he should go back to selling drugs so he could at least afford a place to live. My heart broke when he said “No matter what I do, I’m never going to get ahead.”
Jack is by no means an outlier. Over 10 000 households are on the Social Housing wait list this year, waiting an average of 3 years, with many waiting much longer.
Jack never heard back from any housing wait list.
But there is hope in this story – Jack did find housing. He found it on his own. It’s expensive for what it is – a small room in rooming house, but at least it is safe and warm. But the hope is not in our housing system, but rather the resilience of young men like Jack, who persevere despite a painful past and a flawed system.
You see her every day on your way to work. Usually she is sitting at Tim Horton’s or resting on a bench. She is hard to miss – a small woman, probably less than 100 pounds – wearing many layers of clothing which make her look even tinier. She is small but strong; carrying several bags as she walks quickly down the streets.
You have heard her mumbling to herself, or occasionally yelling at nobody in particular.
One day, you don’t see her at the Tim Horton’s. As the weeks pass, you wonder where she has gone…is she safe? Has anyone else noticed? You worry about the fate of this unknown woman.
But she is not unknown.
On the streets, she is known as La Petite Joanne – a kind and generous woman. She often shares her money with panhandlers and offers them her food. In turn, others on the streets look out for her and protect her.
By her family, she is known as Jocelyne. She grew up on the East coast, one of 10 children. She graduated high school and went on to become a secretary. Her career brought her to Ottawa, where she worked on Parliament Hill. She was proud of her work, and her family was proud of her too. It’s hard to imagine this woman, the woman muttering to herself on the streets, working for the federal government on Parliament Hill. But that is how swiftly and drastically schizophrenia can change a life. Her family remained loving and supportive. Although far away, they spoke to her often, visited, provided financial resources and attempted to get her medical care.
One day, her family received a call from Jocelyne. She was in hospital after having some health issues. During that call she recited the Lord’s Prayer with passion…
“Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié…”
Days later, they received word Jocelyne has passed away in hospital. They brought her back home to the east coast, where she was mourned by those who knew her as sister, aunt and friend.
Indeed, she was not unknown or forgotten.
At the funeral, the eulogist beautifully articulated this by saying “I am absolutely convinced that God knew Jocelyne….and I am equally convinced that she knew Him.”
At OIM we knew her too. And we shall miss her.
Moira, Youth Outreach Worker
Recently, a few of us were talking about people we had met through the drop in and where they were. I talked about John, a man that I had met over 15 years ago when we ran our drop in out of another location downtown. John was a homeless man who had his challenges being homeless with mental illness issues. He was a flamboyant individual, colourful, always had an opinion and was willing to discuss any current topic and extremely political. (If he could have found a way to control his mental illness, I do believe he would have made an attempt to become a politician. But that is another story.)
John’s colourful dress reflected his mood and his outlook. I had once told him he reminded me of a peacock because he always had feathers in his hat and he was brightly dressed. I didn’t mean it as an insult and he didn’t take it that way. It sparked a friendship that has lasted many years…
During Christmas of 2005 my father died, predeceased by mother in 1994 and both in the month of December which makes the period of Christmas hard for me.
In May 2006 I am outside the drop in and in a real depressed mood. We had just put dad in the ground and I am dealing with a lot of emotions; guilt, everything associated with the loss of your last parent. With no close family nearby to talk to I am isolated, with my only siblings in British Columbia. John comes up to me pushing his grocery cart filled with his worldly possessions and sees that I am depressed and asks me what is wrong and I tell him. No one else has picked up on this, or if they have they haven’t asked.
He leans over and very quietly says to me, “I have been there brother. I know exactly what you are going through. I am here for you if you need to talk.” He reaches out, squeezes my shoulder, looks me in the eye and something passes between us that can’t be expressed in words. Tears flow and I mumble ‘thanks.’
Every week I give up my time for the homeless, the marginalized, to support them. And, here, it took a homeless man to recognize my pain and hurt and to provide me the one thing I needed: unconditional love. I was humbled, I was loved and I learned a lesson that I have never forgotten.
Love comes in all sizes, shapes and forms. We just need to learn to recognize it and accept it.
Ken B, Volunteer
I trust you are enjoying our little get-togethers. I find myself again wanting to share with you about a friend named Bob. (As I will always share, for the sake of anonymity, everyone in this series of posts will be named Bob. This will be my standard opening, so I trust you will be patient with me.)
Back to “Bob.”
Bob is a wonderful guy. He’s articulate, engaging in conversation. He presents that air of an intellectual, but not stuffy or arrogant; just genuinely interested in conversation that goes deeper than the weather. I have sat and talked with Bob several times, and enjoy our conversations very much.
In honesty, I am still waiting for the opportunity for our conversations to get personal. Not just theological about Faith and Christ, but where trust and opportunity will present themselves in time. The reason I am mentioning Bob here is that I truly wonder what set of circumstances has brought him to the place where access to a self-sustaining life is limited and the need for support is high.
We are so fortunate at OIM to be able to support and come alongside our friends like Bob.
As for Bob’s life, with many trauma survivors their ability to guard and protect themselves is highly developed, so he has only shared small bits of that part of his life with me so far. In appearance and conversation though, Bob would fit very comfortably within any social environment. He also applies action to words: whenever he sees that I need help with drop-in duties I don’t need to ask. He just steps in and lends a hand. Bob’s heart and desire to contribute and make a difference in life is evident, even though we run into the big “BUT” that drowns his potential. Bob is quite a paradox and I am genuinely blessed to have met him. I pray also that God brings a revelation of Christ into his life because Bob has so much potential to give and impact the life of others.
Rick O, Staff
On July 21-23, thirty-five stone carvers gathered on Ottawa’s historic Sparks Street for the Canadian Stone Carving Festival. Each was given a large slab of limestone and 18 hours to make it into something.
During those 18 hours, I saw some amazing things.
I saw people bringing renewed life into an old art.
I saw community members giving up their time and skill for a cause.
I saw artists creating extraordinary works of art out of ordinary things.
But what was most noteworthy for me was to see the carving community interact. They are a special community who supports each other and bonds over a passion for carving. There way no competition or arrogance, just fellowship.
Together, $9650 dollars was raised in support of Ottawa Innercity Ministries.
We are so thankful for the amazing carvers who took part in this festival.
Back to “Bob”: this is a man who has seen every province in our great country. This is a man who has been through many traumas, who will bring a tear to the most stout heart. This is a man who, when you pass him on the street, is so still and quiet that he looks like a mannequin. Yet Bob has a strength of survival that matches the strongest of souls. The wonderful ladies with me on outreach, when we met Bob, felt an unspoken need to stop, sit, and engage with him.
This is exactly what sparked him to life and he had a story to share.
Bob blessed us with a piece of his life and his story which touched our hearts. We, in turn, provided him with something just as important to him, such as a sandwich and a bottle of water to a man who hasn’t eaten for an extended period of time. We listened and showed him that someone cares and is genuinely interested in what he wants to say and that he matters in life.
I am so blessed to have met Bob and pray that God will intervene and overwhelm Bob with his love and resources which are limitless.
Rick O, Volunteer
I’m originally from El Salvador and I moved to Canada last year. When you come from a country like mine (a beautiful country but with many problems, including widespread poverty and homelessness) it’s hard to think that a country like Canada still faces homelessness.
But, unfortunately, it does.
Before working with the street-engaged community through OIM, I didn’t give much thought to why someone ends up homeless. Even just walking downtown, where you see homelessness staring you in the face, you can become numb to the situation. You see it everyday. So, without even bothering to look at a homeless person, you simply walk by.
That’s why I am grateful to be working at OIM.
My time with this ministry has been an enriching experience in so many ways. My perception about homelessness has changed, I have learned so much from our street friends. I have learnt how empathy can change things even if it’s not always easy to imagine what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. At times, it’s just easier to judge or to assume that if someone is in that situation (homeless) it must be because of their life choices. But, it’s more than that. Much more.
And I’ve also learned about the strength of character that resides in each person who visits us at the office.
Every week our street friend ‘Rob’ comes to the Stop-In at our office. He is constantly struggling with mental health issues and feels overwhelmed and negative towards life. But what surprises me about him is that even in his toughest week he never forgets to ask me how I am doing and how my week is going.
Being at OIM has definitely been a one-of-a-kind experience. I have learnt to never underestimate what a small act of kindness can do; you don’t need to do extraordinary things to help others. Often something as simple as having the time to listen or share with someone is enough.
It is in conversations with individuals like ‘Rob’ that I have learned to become more caring, understanding and patient.
That’s what our street friends teach me, each and every day.
Innercity Arts was lucky enough to have Patrick Imai, a local carver, volunteer his time to come in to teach us about soap stone carving. Each youth was given a piece of stone, a file, and various types of sand paper.
They were given basic instructions and then invited to try it. I must admit, I was expecting more detailed instruction! But Patrick said the best way to learn was to try it – and of course, he was right. The pieces of stone were grey and rough, and certainly didn’t look like anything special.
But as the youth started filing, carving and sanding, it was amazing the transformation that happened.
Check out some of the finished pieces.
Thanks so much Patrick for sharing your talent with us. We are excited to continue working with soapstone at the art group. We are also excited to see Patrick carve at the Canadian Stone Carving Festival next month. It will be an awesome festival, with proceeds being generously donated to Ottawa Innercity Ministries. We hope you can join us!
“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,” Psalm 30: 11
A hopeful image from the book of Psalms, but I wonder how much comfort it would give a young couple mourning the loss of their only child…
It was my first year working at OIM when I met with Hali and Danny Barber. They looked exhausted, still in shock after the death of their 17 year old. My heart sank when they told me that she had taken her own life after struggling with mental health issues.
Joy was so far away from them. They appeared to be struggling to make it through each moment.
They told me about their daughter, Freya – a creative artist with a passion for helping others and a desire to connect with those who don’t fit into society. They wanted to honour her passions by donating in her memory to Innercity Arts. They felt it’s what Freya would have wanted. It was an action that touched my heart – and I felt hope for them. Hope but not joy. Joy was impossible.
Over the past few years, the Barbers have stayed connected with Innercity Arts. Attending art shows, donating supplies and taking the volunteer training. But this year, Hali felt she was finally in a place that she could volunteer at Innercity Arts. She is now attending every Thursday evening and is a support to youth who desperately need the kindness of an adult.
I’m not sure that Hali and Danny would say their mourning has turned to joy. They are still grieving and will always mourn for Freya. But what struck me is that joy was not impossible.
Joy has come to others through Hali and Danny.
When youth opened the donated art supplies….joy!
When Hali sits with a youth at Innercity Arts and creates art with them…..joy!
When we can support more youth through the funds raised at the carving festival…joy!
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30: 5
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