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University of Ottawa student Suzanne Schildroth goes through boxes of food as part of her volunteer shifts. Photo: Bridget Coady/Fulcrum

Ottawa’s Shepherds of Good Hope shelter relying heavily on student volunteers

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a surprising and unexpected surge of volunteers at Ottawa’s Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter and kitchen.

Caroline Cox of the Shepherds of Good Hope knew in March when the pandemic hit, they would be in trouble, not just for the number of already-vulnerable persons they helped but in losing their dedicated senior volunteers leaving for their health and safety. However, their downtown Ottawa location has had an unexpected uptick in the number of student volunteers.

Cox, who is the senior manager of communications, community and volunteer services has seen the largest surge of volunteers since the organization’s founding in 1983 from the student and young adult demographic.

“We needed a positive story and it has come to us,” she said. “The younger generation has stepped up and kept us going in this pandemic.”

 “Homelessness can happen to any of us,” she stated. “I’ve seen people with PhDs to successful contractors come through our doors. There is also a lot of trauma.”

Benefits of rising numbers

According to the Shepherds’ most recent annual report there were 257 new volunteers in 2019 and 2450 shelter clients. Since the start of the pandemic in March, the number of volunteers under the age of 29 has risen from 20 to 42 per cent of the shelter’s volunteer base. These newcomers have taken over the core of the weekday shifts which were often the older adults volunteer shifts.

Shepherds of Good Hope is located at the intersection of Murray St and King Edward Ave in Ottawa.
Photo: Bridget Coady/Fulcrum

Pre-pandemic, Cox said they would normally have around 20 volunteers prepping and cooking meals and then serving them.

She said at the beginning of the pandemic they had to scale down the meals to allow for physical distancing. They also transitioned to cooking and serving outside under a tent.

“Shepherds rely heavily on food donations,” she said. For COVID-19 precautions they have only been accepting commercial kitchen food. They were grateful for the restaurants who closed due to the pandemic and donated their remaining food, receiving tens of thousands of dollars worth of food.

“It’s really inspiring,” she said. “Even amongst their own stressors, [they] thought about other people in our community.”

Cox said the general narratives of the new volunteers include, ‘I realize I have some more privilege and I want to help who need it the most’ or that volunteering is helpful for them, often separated from family and friends, they’ve found it feels meaningful.

She said while they in one way, have lost the consistency of scheduled days prior to the pandemic, she sees it as a good challenge to accommodate and be more flexible for the younger volunteers’ schedules.

The young volunteers have also started a wave in the community stepping up in fundraising and awareness-raising initiatives

“It’s translated into real meaningful action, and [that’s] been helpful for them,” she said. “It’s really cool to see.”

Students on the frontlines

Suzanne Schildroth is one of the organization’s newer volunteers, she’s a fourth-year student at the U of O in social work and gender studies.

She first came to the Shepherds last winter semester from her feminism class where the option was to either write a final paper or 30 hours of volunteer work.

Having completed 30 hours for the class at Shepherds, she moved back to her home in London, Ont., when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Eventually, when she moved back to Ottawa in June, she said she was drawn back to helping out at the Shepherds.

“I just love the people and the environment,” she said. “The people are so caring and genuine, and I feel that translates to our serving experience with clients.”

She said she feels the value of giving back to the community. “When we treat them with respect, they’ll treat us with respect.” 

A few weeks ago when serving food, she was informed by her supervisor that she had won their “There in a Pinch” volunteer award for consistently taking up multiple spare shifts on top of her regular shifts.

She said the experience has allowed her to put her education from class into practice. “Society tends to view people who have become homeless as ‘their fault’ and if they would work harder or enter programs they can get themselves back on track. But I have found and learned that once you become homeless, it becomes very hard to get out of because it’s cyclical.”

“You get minimum support checks, you buy the basics like foods and then back to square one. You can’t get a checking account without a home address.”

“I’ve found people don’t understand that and tend to blame them. Step into their shoes and see what their life is like compared to yours.”

She explained with the pandemic creating an unprecedented societal environment, there are added concerns for those who are homeless. 

“One thing I’ve learned that while people are concerned about COVID-19, [those homeless] are terrified. They have no security and safety. They are stuck outside and have nowhere to go. They don’t feel safe.”

She said that she sees how vulnerable the homeless feel and with the winter coming, it is very concerning for the clients and those supporting them.

Winter is coming 

On Oct. 1, the organization had to reorganize their food preparation and move to serving in the basement for the cold months.

Cox and the Shepherds’ team are very concerned about the approaching winter months coupled with the pandemic for their clients. Last year, the shelter was overcrowded and blankets had to be laid out in the hallways.

Going into the winter months, Cox said they are looking for donations in winter clothing and bedding. 

The Shepherds’ housing advocate Katie Burkholder Harris said that a key concern is also connected to accessing affordable housing.

“The risk of eviction is a risk to everyone’s health,” she said. “We cannot sustain phase two of COVID-19 if so many are in shelters because they have no safe place to stay. We just can’t.”

Burkholder Harris, who is also the executive director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, worked with Shepherds of Good Hope and other shelters to get the city of Ottawa to recognize a housing and homeless emergency in the city back in January. The Alliance’s partnership with the City of Ottawa in the Ottawa Housing Blitz initiative helps fill room vacancies.

“Housing is a human right and you can’t leave human rights to the [business] private sector,” she said. “We do need to do something strategic about regulation and the inclusion of more affordable units within this market model.”

She said since the start of the Housing Blitz, she’s been surprised by how many individuals have called her due to landlords calling for a ‘renoviction’ and that they cannot find any similar affordable housing.

“People cannot continue to be left to go into shelters or maintain homelessness as a way that we continue to structure our system,” she said. 

“We have to focus on getting people safely and affordably housed or we will not have recovery.”