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photo by Mico Mazza

HOMELESSNESS IS A very real problem in Canada’s capital. According to the Alliance to End Homelessness, the city’s homeless shelters took in over 7,100 individuals for more than 440,000 overnight stays in 2010, and that excludes those who slept on the streets.

Camping for the homeless

March 12–16, five Telfer School of Management students hoped to reduce that statistic by participating in Five Days for the Homeless. The five-day-long charity campaign challenges youth to live outside to raise funds for initiatives that aim to reduce homelessness. Telfer students chose to support Operation Come Home (OCH), a local organization that provides services to help homeless individuals aged 16–34 get off the streets.

The students camped out in front of  the Morisset library with only their clothes, a pillow, and a sleeping bag. They were required to attend their classes, permitted to use public restrooms only for necessities, and lived only off food donations. As of March 19, they raised over $8,800, just short of their $10,000 target. Donations are still being accepted at

“The experience has been awesome,” said Justin Fisette, a fourth-year marketing student and one of the five students who camped out. “I’m from Halifax—a little suburban community in Halifax—and we never see anything that has to do with homelessness or anything like that. And then I moved to Ottawa, and the [Ottawa] Mission is right down the street from the school, so I pretty much see that every day, and I always wondered what I could do to help.”

Rehabilitation does the job

Operation Come Home is helping in a unique way. Its mission statement is “to prevent homeless youth from becoming homeless adults.” The organization has been doing just that since 1971, evolving over the years to offer more rehabilitation programs to youth.

“We really focus on employment and school support,” said Jamie Hammond, OCH’s communications officer. “We have things like our drop-in centre, we have two social enterprises under employment, we have a 12-week pre-employment program, and we also have the only on-site high school in Ottawa at this time. [The youth] can work on high-school credits, they can work toward their diploma, and then their GEDs or college and university applications.”

The organization helps upward of 100 individuals every day, providing basic necessities like food and water.

Kyle Baker, a 26-year-old formerly homeless man said the organization helped him get back on his feet.

“They’ve helped me out a fair bit through past things—I’d been having troubles maintaining a job due to mental health and some other barriers,” said Baker. “When I was first here, I was like, ‘I need some schooling’ and they helped me out through there. Then I was like, ‘I need to get back into the workforce’ but I didn’t really feel confident working with a team. So, they directed me to go through this one program where I was working with a very small team­—like one or two coworkers.”

With the help of the Ottawa Mission and OCH, Baker has since held a few different jobs, transitioning to working with more people.

Baker also talked about the simple benefit of having a drop-in centre that offers food. While Baker has recently saved up enough money to get a small apartment, he still needs support from OCH.

“I can barely afford [the apartment], let alone eating,” he said. “I don’t have a kitchen in my apartment … so it’s really a treacherous kind of thing when you can’t get breakfast in the morning and you’re really disgruntled about it. It’s quite helpful to come here—at least I know I’m going to have something to eat before I go to work.”

Harmful stereotypes 

Discrimination against the homeless is embedded in Canadian society. According to a poll conducted by Angus Reid, approximately 40 per cent of Canadians believe individuals experiencing homelessness “want to live on the street and in shelters,” and close to 20 per cent think homeless people “are always to blame for the situation they are in.”

Despite these misconceptions, 93 per cent of the respondents said they believed “no one in Canada should be homeless”.

“One thing that you don’t think about is that a lot of people have preconceptions of why homeless people are homeless, why the youth are homeless” said Fisette when asked what he learned from the project.

Shirley Roy, media relations officer at the Ottawa Mission, observes the dichotomy in public attitude toward homelessness every day.

“It’s funny,” she said, “because I get the calls from people saying, ‘How can I help?’ and I get the calls saying, ‘Keep those people away from me!’ There’s a fear factor for a lot of people—there’s that perception that somebody staying at a homeless shelter must be a criminal, must be dangerous. That’s usually not the case.

“I tell people, there’s 234—maybe 240—people staying here every night and you see maybe 10 or 15 guys standing outside—that’s a small portion of people staying here,” Roy added. “The majority you would pass on the street and not know they were homeless. And they’re out looking for a place to live, or looking for a job, or trying to get their life back on track.”

Roy noted a small amount of homeless people struggling with addictions or mental illness are prone to erratic behaviour, and a shelter is the only place they can turn when they are rejected by the community.

“A lot of them are staying at a homeless shelter long term because there’s not enough places—like group homes or addiction treatment facilities or whatever the case—to help them,” said Roy.

For Baker, discrimination was one of the big barriers that prevented him from getting his own place when he finally saved enough money.

“I’d be calling places, I’d call from the phone here … and I’d show up as OHC or Operation Come Home, and I’d be calling about an apartment and I got lectures before on that, like, ‘I’m not going to rent to you. This isn’t a drunk party house’ and I’m taken aback” he said. “I didn’t have any troubles once I got my own phone. I’d use the Mission one and people would just be like, ‘No, we don’t rent to you dirty hobos, click’ and I’m just like, ‘Oh, thanks for keeping me a dirty hobo, I guess.’ … I’m just trying to get out, and they didn’t really help me.”

What can students do? 

Both the Ottawa Mission and OCH are largely run by private contributions of money, food, toiletries, and clothing.

“Private donations are a huge part of Operation Come Home’s funding,” said Hammond. “That’s why things like Five Days for the Homeless are so important, because they bring in so much money for us, and it’s amazing the kind of results they get from that campaign.”

Roy also said student help is invaluable.

“We see many students volunteering their time in places like our kitchen, where we’re providing 1,200 meals a day,” said Roy. “Students play a huge part in the services that the Ottawa Mission provides.”

Apart from the closely located Mission, there are many homeless shelters around the city. While organizations cater to different demographics, they all have the same goal—to lend a hand, or a ladle of soup, to help people get back on their feet.

—Julia Riddle