By: CAITLIN SALVINO
Thursday, February 20, 2014
The past two days have been quite a whirlwind. We visited three separate organizations that all have a huge impact on the people living in Ottawa.
On Wednesday we visited Ottawa’s Site Needle and Syringe program. Run by public health nurses, the program operates a van that drives around the city 364 days a year and can be called by anyone. Once called, they meet with people in the van and give them as many clean needle kits as they need. So far, Site has served as many as 1,500 needles in one night. They also provide visitors with medical knowledge, including how to inject safely, contraceptive options, and how to deal with injuries such as abscess.
This program is controversial. Like with Vancouver’s INSITE program, many people are opposed to the idea of giving people needles because they believe it promotes the use of illegal drugs. But as Sarah, one of Site’s public health nurses said, in Ottawa the biggest problem is not that people are using illegal drugs but rather that they are sharing them. It is no surprise that Ottawa has one of the highest Hepatitis C rates among drug users in Canadian cities, when considering our city was the last to have an unlimited needle exchange. Even Sarah’s own family is unsupportive of the program, however she told us she keeps working because the program, “saves lives.”
The next morning we went to Operation Come Home, where our focus shifted to youth homelessness. This organization is one of the ones that impressed me the most! They had a lovely, bright building decorated with inspiring paintings, quotes, and artwork. They had a common room with tables to eat at, computers, and a foosball table. They had other rooms with kitchens and offices. Attached to the main floor is OCH’s re:Purpose store, a unique boutique that sells products from social enterprises, artisans, and jewellery made by at-risk and homeless youth at OCH. Products that are sold in the boutique provide jobs for at-risk and homeless youth and give local enterprises and artisans an opportunity to sell their products. I loved all the products in this store and I can admit that I’m guilty of buying quite a few of them. These products were more expensive than what I would usually buy, but it was easier knowing they were made from recycled materials and are supporting at-risk youth!
The second floor of OCH houses a bunch of different programs, including Farmworks (teaching youth about farming techniques), Finance Matters (teaching youth about how to manage money, especially a bank account) and their Reunite program, where they work to reunite youth with their families). They also have a joint high school program with Lester B. Pearson high school. This allows youth to complete high school credits in groups of 15 at OCH, with the help of a full time teacher and tutors.
The final program that they introduced to us was the Job Action Centre. JAC is a 16-week paid employment program that works with young adults who wish to develop their employability skills. The first six weeks involves job training such as learning to write a cover letter and resume, learning good habits such as arriving on time, and getting important training such as Smart Serve, and Emergency First Aid. OCH also assists youth in getting a 10 week placement where they work for 28 hours per week, and where employers train and assist them in developing skills associated with that industry. The goal of the program is to have the participant become a successful member of their team where they have the opportunity for permanent employment after the 10 weeks have been completed. I was truly impressed by this program because Melanie Savage, who leads the program, told us several stories about participants who were able to continue with these jobs and went on to lead successful lives.
The thing that struck me the most was that not only did OCH provide supportive services, but it had a very loving and accepting atmosphere that was really reflected through the youth there. I truly believe it is an institution that makes youth feel safe and supported, some of the most important factors to help youth achieve success.
Finally, we ended our day at the Ottawa Food Bank. Although we were sorting food in a warehouse where there was no interaction with those that need it the most, it was really special to me. Throughout middle and high school I was heavily involved in founding and leading food drives and particularly food drive competitions. I felt a personal connection with this place, seeing that I have sent over 25,000 food items to this warehouse in particular. While sorting the food for two hours we were told about the various places the food was going, including many of the places we had visited this week such as Shepherds of Good Hope, the Ottawa Mission and Operation Come Home. Although it was tiring and impersonal work, I believe in those two hours we helped more people than in any of the others places we have visited all week!
In sum, this week has made me rethink all of my previous conceptions about people who are considered “homeless.” Everything I have seen and everyone I’ve met has made me realize that people are much more than their material possessions. I believe this is something that we as a society fail to realize sometimes. I urge everybody to get involved, ask questions and learn more, because no matter what we do or ignore we have people in our own city living in dire situations. They at least deserve to have us listen to their stories and give them some time out of our busy lives.