Ottawa's most vulnerable facing 'bleak situation' this holiday season

·4 min read
An individual panhandles on Bank Street in Ottawa. Some of the local shelters and outreach organizations say the needs of the city's most vulnerable have only increased throughout the pandemic.  (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)
An individual panhandles on Bank Street in Ottawa. Some of the local shelters and outreach organizations say the needs of the city's most vulnerable have only increased throughout the pandemic. (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)

While the holidays are a challenging time for many, Ottawa's shelters and outreach services say this Christmas is shaping up to be one of the most difficult because of an increased need in the community combined with staffing shortages.

"We had hoped by this time, we wouldn't be in the boat that we're in," said Shepherds of Good Hope CEO Deirdre Freiheit.

The shelter is dealing with being near capacity and having fewer staff on hand.

"I think people are worried about the Omicron [variant]. We don't know what the winter is going to look like but we're gearing up to have a challenging winter."

She said approximately 75 per cent of people who use the shelter's services are vaccinated, but it's not always the same group of people who spend the night.

For now, the Shepherds of Good Hope is attempting to maintain physical distancing by limiting the number of people allowed inside the building.

Freiheit admits it can also be difficult to build a rapport with people when the shelter is short-staffed. That rapport, she said, is often what clients appreciate most.

'The ties that are needed, so desperately needed, for people to survive and thrive and or even exist relationally are being stressed and pressured.' - Ken MacLaren, executive director of Ottawa Innercity Ministries

Donations also appear to be down this year compared to previous years, she said, although the final figures won't be available until early 2022.

"We're hoping that over the next few weeks, when people are home and thinking about where they might like to make their donation, that they'll think of us as well as others in the community," she said.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

The Ottawa Mission hasn't faced as severe harships as other organizations across the city, because of generous donors, dedicated volunteers and strict COVID-19 protocols, said spokesperson Aileen Leo. Yet, it has seen an increase in need since the start of the pandemic. The organization has given out a record 6,274 Christmas dinners already this holiday season and expects to provide hundreds more in the coming days.

On Friday, the Ottawa Mission also tried to get ahead of the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases by holding a vaccination clinic for its clients.

'Everything's ramped up'

It's not solely an increased need for food and shelter with which some organizations are trying to contend.

Ottawa Innercity Ministries Executive Director Ken MacLaren said the pandemic has only exacerbated another already delicate situation — people's mental health.

He said it doesn't help that some clients are realizing a Christmas invite from loved ones may not be coming because families are worried about the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.

"Everything's ramped up. The mental health issues are ramped up, segregation is ramped up, isolationism is ramped up," he said.

"The ties that are needed, so desperately needed, for people to survive and thrive and or even exist relationally are being stressed and pressured. Folks are in a pretty dark, bleak situation."

Like Shepherds of Good Hope, Ottawa Innercity Ministries has faced staffing shortages throughout the pandemic.

That's especially difficult for some, because MacLaren said it's the person-to-person connections that often prove the brightest rays of light when times are tough.

"In the midst of that cloud, in the midst of that darkness, a volunteer shows up with full PPE, face shield and mask and gloves," he said. "As much as possible, we try to connect with people and make sure we call them by name. We listen to their stories.

"And for a few moments, there's a change."

Ottawa Innercity Ministries has been passing out survival packs, which include sleeping bags, hats, mittens and other essentials, made with donated items or ones bought by community members specifically for the packs.

More ways to donate

With more people struggling to make ends meet, Freiheit said there are other ways people can give this holiday season.

She says a simple note letting someone know they're being thought of and wishing them a Merry Christmas can mean a lot to someone alone during the holidays.

She said the Shepherds of Good Hope is working to ensure everyone who uses the organization's services has a gift to open on Christmas Day.

"We're just doing everything that we can to try to help people feel that [others] care about them in the community."

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