A Tough Night

It was a particularly rough start to the night at Innercity Arts. One of the youth had arrived in distress, suffering from a mental health crisis and inebriation. His behaviour was out of control and his health was in danger – so we made the decision to call paramedics.

Like so many other young people on the streets, this young man became afraid and agitated when he saw the flashing lights of police and ambulance. We tried our best to keep him calm and reassure him that he was safe. It was so difficult to watch as he yelled and struggled with the paramedics who were trying so hard to help him.

From the corner of my eye, I could see several peers from Innercity Arts watching quietly. I sensed that they were guarding their young friend, making sure he was not being mistreated.

When the ambulance left with the young man, I approached the group to make sure they were okay.

“I know that must have been hard to see your friend like that”, I said.

“Actually, we wanted to make sure YOU were okay,” one replied.

Surprised, I questioned “Me?”

“Yeah, you looked to sad. We just wanted to make sure you were okay,” one said.

“When I saw how upset you looked, I thought wow, you guys must really care about us,” another said.

It is amazing how one moment my heart was aching, seeing a young person in such distress. And in the next moment, I was being comforted by the very youth I was there to comfort! I am constantly amazed by the capacity young people on the streets have to show compassion and caring for others, even when they have so much going on in their lives. I am so thankful for this community.  

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members (1)

Larissa’s Journey: Teen Years

Larissa’s Journey is a blog series that we hope will offer insight and understanding into the lives of one of the young people in the Innercity Arts program. We hope to raise awareness, challenge misconceptions, and honestly reflect the lives of those who call the streets their home. This blog is the more detailed account of Larissa’s on-air presentations on Family Radio CHRI, 99.1 FM, each weekday at 8 am and 5 pm. Thanks for listening.

Larissa’s JourneyNo more foster homes would take me. No more group homes. I had aged out. They asked me where I wanted to live. Since I had always wanted to live in Ottawa, I chose there. They dropped me off at the young women’s shelter, and left me on my own.

I didn’t feel ready to be on my own, but it was a rush – at least at first.  I was so new to everything. At the shelter I could go out whenever I wanted (in group homes you weren’t allowed to do this), and I felt like a free bird. After three weeks though, things were very different.

I had freedom yes, but there were also responsibilities. Before the shelter, anything I did, I got a slap on the wrist, and told not to do that again. Consequences came at the shelter. Anything you did wrong, you had to answer for it and deal with it. It was terrible to be an adult. At sixteen I was forced to be an adult, and I wasn’t ready.

My clothes were always stolen by other girls. I was a bit smaller than everyone else, so tighter clothes on the other girls was very popular. I watched them in my clothes, and I felt like crying. Some of those clothes had memories.

At the shelter, for example, I learned that you couldn’t share a toothbrush. Hygiene was different for me too. I really didn’t know how to look after myself. I still don’t know some things. I don’t do dishes. I used to fill the tub with hot water, soak the dishes in the tub with ½ tub of bleach, and you let them soak. When you can pull them out and there’s no food stuff on it they were ready.

When I was about 16, I went to see my mom, and found her Percoset and OxyContin pills and my mom was doing crack. I used those drugs for about one month before they almost killed me. Every step was like almost floating on clouds. I felt like I was on a big marshmallow. I couldn’t feel the ground under me

I went home to the kitchen and dropped.  I went to the hospital for a couple of weeks. I almost lost one of my kidneys. That was the end of drugs for me. 

I was at the shelter until I was seventeen. I left when I was banned and was homeless.

Editor: Please stay tuned to Family Radio CHRI 99.1 weekdays at 8 am and 5 pm as Larissa next shares what it was like to be living on her own, homeless on the streets. Then come back to this blog and read the full length episode in Larissa’s own words.

 

Searching for Affordable Housing

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.

The Bob Series: Marginalized survivors

Note:  To protect the identity of the people I write about, I have chosen to use the name ‘Bob’ in the following piece…

All of the people I share with you are real men and women. Friends with hopes and dreams and all the same desires shared by us all. As a result of some extreme circumstances or mental health issues, their lives have been marginalized to that of outcast in our society.

When we look at those experiencing poverty and homelessness we tend to fit them into a framework and think they have earned the place they have in our culture. It helps us to justify the favour and blessings in our lives.

Yet  God does not see anybody that way. He sees all people through the eyes of the cross.

Namely, who they can be, at their fullest potential, the bride of Christ, clean pure and amazing. We should look at all people through those same eyes of love and then apply action to support them with our time, our prayers, and our resources. I have up to now and will continue to share with you stories about “Bob,” attempting to paint a picture of the incredible resilience and ability there is in the human spirit to survive.

I started this blog with, these are true stories about real lives, of men and women and youth with all the same feelings, desires and dreams that we all have. So remember, as we look at our street-engaged community we need to engage, and also remember that the cliche saying “there but by the grace of God go I”. This may be more of a reality than we care to admit.

Rick Ojala, Staff

 

*To see more from the series, click here to see part 1, part 2, and part 3.

 

 

 

A Place of Third Chances

With his long, white flowing hair pulled back in a ponytail, Simon walked into our drop-in and back into our lives, eager to “give back” as he put it. As Simon explained, he had been released from prison and was getting his life back together. Estranged from his ex-wife and with a 14-year-old daughter to raise, Simon did not want alcohol or his past troubles to hold him down…again.

That’s because this was his third time around.

Having taken the next steps to go through an alcohol treatment program and transition into a community living facility with employment-readiness training, Simon was finally looking forward to the future. “My graduation from the treatment program is tomorrow,” he beamed. “I was up at 5:30 this morning writing my graduation speech – seven pages so far!”

Simon’s sense of accomplishment was evident.

But so was his desire to move forward. “I need to stay busy. I want to get a part-time job and to start volunteering at OIM.” We were happy to welcome him, to come alongside him in his journey back to health and stability. “You guys were there for me when I needed it,” he told us, “and now I want to give back.”

It was gratifying to know that Simon felt welcomed at our drop-in (not an easy thing for ex-offenders to find in any community, as you can imagine). But, there he was, helping us set up, serve lunch, and tear down at the end of the day.

He was in a place where he felt welcome to start over (again).  And while the road to stability is not easy, often paved with setbacks and disappointments, giving ourselves – and others – permission to make some mistakes along the way can make all the difference.

 

Jelica, Staff

 

 

Just a couple of Canadians (eh?), talking on the bus.

I ran into one of our clients the other day.

It happened as I got on the bus & looked around for an empty spot.

“There she is!” I heard someone say. It was Ted.

He was sitting alone. The rest of the bus was crowded, cramped. But Ted had an empty seat on his right and an empty seat on his left. Holding an enormous paper bag (a 6-pack of beer inside), he looked weathered, frail, wrinkled, and slightly intoxicated. He smiled up at me.

I sat next to him and we spent the next 10 minutes catching up.

It was like any conversation you might hear on any bus in Canada.

We spoke about Canada Day (how chaotic it was!), the weather (how warm it’s been lately, eh?), and music (I play 1 instrument; Ted plays several. “Like most Newfoundlanders,” I say. He smiles ).

Ted was chatty, friendly; polite and encouraging (“When I was on the streets, your outreach teams helped me out so much!” he says to me. “They are amazing.”)

I couldn’t help but wonder how odd the two of us looked to the other passengers who eyed us cautiously.

I hoped that their expectations were challenged. I hoped that they could see beneath Ted’s rough exterior and see what I saw: the talented musician; the sympathetic listener; the amiable fellow:  a typical Canadian.

A deeply troubled background? Yes. Complex mental and physical health issues? Yes. Making strides? Yes.

And above all, still just a guy, talking to a gal, riding on a bus, on our way home.

Jelica, Staff

 

 

“At Risk”

 

 

The term “at risk youth” is thrown around a lot, often without much thought or care. It’s a label that can feel very cold and dehumanizing.

But what are “at risk youth” really “at risk” of?

I think if we stopped and answered that question, we wouldn’t use the term so casually.

Because the truth is, right now, these youth are at risk of dying.

Drug addiction and overdose are not new to Ottawa, but the surge of overdoses over the past year is unprecedented. The youth I work with are more at risk of dying from an overdose than ever. So much so, that lately when a youth does not show up for our weekly art group, I get a knot in my stomach worrying they are the latest overdose victim.

It’s a really dark time.

But in the midst of this, the youth at Innercity Arts provide hope. Even in this darkness, they remain resilient and build each other up – like no other community I’ve ever seen.

I’m inspired by their strength. I’m humbled by their generosity. I’m thankful for their compassion.

I’m always amazed by the beautiful things they create. This year, they have created some incredible pieces of art and music and will showing it to the community.

I hope you can attend the show, and be witness to a truly hopeful thing in this dark time.

Event Link: https://www.facebook.com/events/131027517429263/ 

 

Danielle’s Story: Episode 7 – What’s happening now

 

“Danielle’s Story” is a series running throughout December.
To listen to the audio backgrounder from Family Radio CHRI, click the play button below. Follow along all month to hear this amazing story!

Jason baptized me in the Ottawa River. He used to drive me to church with his family. It was a turning point in my life.

I graduated from the art program, and entered Algonquin College for Animation.  I graduated last year.

Right now, I am getting closer to getting a studio job as an animator.  In another couple of weeks I’ll do another interview and then I will be able to complete my homelessness journey, and support myself without relying on others.

My art is more than creativity, it was my means to escape the horrors of abuse and homelessness. It kept me going. I  escaped the temptation of drugs, and turned to my stories when I needed to escape that world.  It was my home when I had none.

Homelessness taught me what happiness is all about. It is not about materialism. It is not about having money.

I was happiest, when I was with my friend and her mother.

I was happiest when I was at OIM, as a part of the art program, and their staff and volunteers offered so much – support, encouragement and acceptance.

This has made all the difference in my life. Life is about love.

 

Please give consideration with your family to adding just one more person to your Christmas list and sponsoring one of the youth in our program for only $30 /month?

Click “Donate Now” and make a lasting difference in the life of someone who just never had a chance before, just like Danielle.

Danielle’s Story: Episode 2 – The Beginnings of Abuse

“Danielle’s Story” is a series running throughout December.
To listen to the audio backgrounder from Family Radio CHRI, click the play button below. Follow along all month to hear this amazing story!

 

This is Danielle’s story in her own words:

We moved to Ottawa when I was six, that’s when the abuse picked up. I remember coming home from school, afraid even before I got there. School started, and every day when I got home from school I would hide in my room, covering my ears when the stomping of feet began. I knew a beating was coming. My mother or stepfather came quickly down the stairs to hurt one of us if there was a noise, or if the baby had woken up.

As  the years went by, the abuse became more serious and frightening. I knew something was wrong- but I didn’t know what to do. Even when social workers would come to investigate, my mother would threaten us not to say anything. I didn’t dare speak up, for fear the beatings would become even more severe.

I had to take Reactin to help with my skin condition, and my step mom would take that away from me and I’d get hives. I could write my name on my arm, the hives were so bad.

Finally, when I was 15, my grandmother intervened and insisted that my mother could not take care of me. She took me out of province to live with her. For a while, things were going well- I was happier, I felt more confident. But one day, before a field trip, when I meekly asked my grandmother if I was driving to school with her, she suddenly grabbed by the arms. I still have scars from her nails and I went to school covered in blood.

Stay tuned to Family Radio CHRI as two episodes unfold each week following the 8 o’clock morning and 5 o’clock evening news. As you prepare for Christmas with your family remember there are kids who are all alone.

Why not let them know that they are NOT alone?

Please give consideration with your family to adding just one more person to your Christmas list and sponsoring one of the youth in our program for only $30 /month?

Click “Donate Now” and make a lasting difference in the life of someone who just never had a chance before, just like Danielle.

He fought like a soldier

Every Tuesday for the last several years, you could always count on Marcel to greet you at the drop-in. Walking in first thing in the morning (with a Tim Horton’s cup in hand, of course), he would make his way to his regular table, but not without first greeting each staff member and volunteer.

He had a special connection with two of our volunteers: Ken and Kirk, who are both veterans. You see, Marcel was a proud veteran himself – having served in the Canadian military for several years. But like so many other veterans, after leaving the military he felt lost. He struggled with alcoholism for years, which eventually led him to the streets. But Marcel was a strong man, who persevered. He fought to get off the alcohol and to reclaim his life. He got sober and got a small apartment. But even after surviving homelessness, his life was not easy. He struggled daily with depression and PTSD. But he fought. He fought like a soldier.

This Tuesday at the drop-in, Marcel did not show up to greet us. One of his friends brought us the news that he had died over the weekend due to a heart condition. There were tears shed, as friends comforted each other.

So this Remembrance Day, the OIM community is remembering Marcel. We remember his courage and his resilience.

We thank him for his service.

And we will miss him dearly.

Marcel 3

Marcel at the drop-in.