by Aleksandra Milosevich
for Centretown Community Health Centre
Hilary is a senior living in a rooming house off Bank Street who spends her days around the neighbourhood. She panhandles to supplement the very little money she has left once she pays rent. Her activities aren’t always well received by area businesses.
In the summer of 2016, Bank Street businesses approached their local Bank Street Business Improvement Area (BIA) and community organizations. The businesses had concerns about what they saw as an increase in vulnerable community members on the street panhandling, loitering and, at times, behaving aggressively.
While the businesses were worried about the impact on their storefronts, they were also genuinely concerned about the well-being of the most marginalized residents in our community.
A group formed to see what could be done. Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC), Operation Come Home (OCH) and the Centretown Neighbourhood Community Development Planning Table met to identify solutions. As community-based organizations, we were acutely aware of significant pressures.
Funding for social services in Ottawa has not kept up with demand. Funding cuts mean less services for vulnerable people, and Ottawa is in an affordable housing crisis with the average wait for affordable housing being longer than five years.
There is an increase in poverty and isolation among senior citizens. Half of the seniors living in Centretown live alone. Over 18 percent of all older adults in our neighbourhood live in low income in comparison to the city average of 6.1 percent.
More people like Hilary are making tough choices between rent and food. Seventeen percent of Centretown residents aged 18-64 live on low income, in comparison to the city average of 11.6 percent. More chronically homeless residents are moving into social housing with no wraparound social supports (e.g., employment training and mental health assistance) to help them succeed.
Those of us working daily on the front lines see first hand an increase in the number of residents exhibiting signs of declining mental health.
The group of community organizations started forming a plan called Bank Street Initiative. With funding from the Bank Street BIA, we embarked on a summer 2016 pilot project.
The approach had two prongs. The first was to help residents get services. The second was to teach local businesses about services in the area and know the steps to take in a range of situations.
The first attempt to reach residents was through weekly picnics in Dundonald Park.
While they looked like social get-togethers, the picnics’ informal feel made residents comfortable. CCHC and OCH staff engaged residents in conversations. We got residents connected to mental health supports, employment supports, healthy food and more. In the first six months of the Bank Street Initiative, we connected with 341 unique residents, who made 645 visits to local supports.
As the Bank Street Initiative project showed signs of success, more funding came from the Community Development Framework and Ottawa Community Foundation. We expanded the project to include street outreach.
The businesses had expressed a heartfelt desire to help vulnerable residents, not just shoo them away.
Much like community organizations, local businesses are on the front lines of our neighbourhood. In 2017, a flyer listing community resources was developed and distributed to local businesses. The flyer, available in English and French, lists key community organizations in Centretown that can assist vulnerable residents.
Staff from CCHC and OCH distributed the flyers in person to more than 130 businesses during the summers of 2017 and 2018. We typically spent 10-15 minutes with each business. The Bank Street BIA also emailed the information to all of their members. Businesses were receptive. They often weren’t previously aware of all the supports in the neighbourhood.
Businesses now turn previously perceived difficult situations into positive chances to offer assistance. In fact, many businesses we visited in the summers of 2017 and 2018 now speak about the flyer’s usefulness. It is prominently displayed by their cash register or main desk. Sometimes businesses reach out to the community organization directly and let them know of a vulnerable person on the street. They are also interested in receiving up-to-date information about community resources.
Some local businesses have gone even further. St. Andrew’s Church lets CCHC and OCH use their beautiful space to host weekly wintertime lunches. Dave Massine of Massine’s Your Independent Grocer rented us his community kitchen at an affordable rate. As a result, vulnerable residents have safe, indoor spaces to access food, social services and to engage in positive social interactions.
As a result, our residents have the opportunity to access the services they need. Community organizations and Bank Street businesses learned together. We learned that the most marginalized residents continue to need safe community spaces and positive social interactions.
Local businesses are keen to be part of the effort to support residents in need and preserve the neighbourhood’s spirit of inclusion and mutual support.