On the frigid Sunday morning of Dec. 6, young Anglicans from the diocese of Ottawa gathered in a parking lot to help dozens of homeless youth heading into a long pandemic winter.
Working quickly while wearing masks and staying two metres apart, youth from St. Helen’s Anglican Church and All Saints Westboro produced a range of items they had collected in the previous weeks and put them into backpacks. The items included gloves, hand warmers, towels, Kleenex, toothbrushes, toothpaste, lip balm, cloth face masks and, in some cases, small gifts such as colouring books and coloured pencils. By the end, the youth groups had filled 30 backpacks for two community organizations that would distribute them to young people experiencing homelessness: Restoring Hope Ministries and Operation Come Home.
That moment marked the culmination of a project that emerged out of the shift—announced in spring 2020—of the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering from an in-person meeting in Calgary to an online event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic (the online CLAY will take place in August 2021). For two years, the youth groups at St. Helen’s and All Saints Westboro had been raising money for members to attend CLAY through events such as bake sales and a painting workshop. Now CLAY had been postponed indefinitely.
“We thought, here are all these kids, they’ve generated all this money, they’re excited, they want to do something,” All Saints Westboro volunteer youth worker Steve Sibbald remembers.
“We were just kind of bouncing ideas off back and forth saying, ‘Well, we could just let this money sit in the bank and get mouldy for two years until the next group goes, or we could do something with it now’—which is really what it’s for, because it’s not about the experience of going to Calgary. It’s about developing as a Christian.”
The National Youth Project (NYP) for 2018-2020 had a focus on homelessness and affordable housing. With the NYP extended due to the postponement of CLAY, the Ottawa youth were inspired to use the funds they had raised to address local homelessness and affordable housing.
Together, they donated half the funds they had raised for CLAY to Habitat for Humanity and reached out to local charities to figure out how to use the remainder. Olivia Pelling, volunteer youth group leader at St. Helen’s, contacted Restoring Hope and Operation Come Home.
“I said, ‘We’d like to help. What do you need? How can we help you? There is a pandemic going on, so obviously doing something in person is going to be challenging, but tell us what we can do.’
“They were the ones who said, ‘You know what? We could really do with some backpacks.’ And in the backpacks they gave us this list of things to go inside them.”
While the NYP served as the youth groups’ main inspiration to help local young people living on the streets, addressing homelessness is a longstanding goal of the diocese of Ottawa as well as the wider Anglican and Lutheran churches.
Making homelessness and affordable housing a priority
At their Joint Assembly in Ottawa in July 2013, representatives of the Anglican Church of Canada and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada unanimously endorsed a shared commitment to focus their attention on homelessness and affordable housing.
In the years since, the Anglican diocese of Ottawa has played a leading role in turning that commitment into reality. In 2016 leaders there set two goals for the diocese’s 125th anniversary this year: to create 125 new units of affordable housing within the diocese, and to have “every parish engaged in efforts to pray, learn, advocate, and act to end homelessness through affordable housing.”
P.J. Hobbs, director of mission, says that the diocese of Ottawa remains committed to these goals, though it will not be able to complete the 125 units by the end of 2021. It is currently engaged in a number of related projects—the most active being a project for Christ Church Bells Corners, where affordable housing is under construction on the ground of the former church rectory. Hobbs says the diocese hopes to have built 35 new units by spring 2022.
The COVID-19 pandemic, Hobbs observes, has brought into sharper focus the problems of homelessness by making them worse. In response, the diocese has had to adapt many of its community ministries, such as a day program that gathered people for recreation, food and referral services.
“As soon as the pandemic hit and we’re in lockdown, we couldn’t gather people,” Hobbs says. “So we needed to pivot very quickly and realize that much of the services that we provide really focus on basic needs. In that moment it was all about food.”
At the height of lockdowns, many people experiencing homelessness were precariously housed in shelters or rooming houses. During these periods, Hobbs says, “it was more important that they stayed safe there and that we could deliver food to them. That was one example of a very significant shift that we needed to make.”
As the pandemic rolled on, the diocese had to adjust and enhance its programs for homelessness and affordable housing, particularly with partners such as the City of Ottawa and other agencies.
“We went from delivering, for the first few months, thousands of meals a day to partnering with the city at depots and making sure that we prepared food that could be handed out at various locations in the city,” Hobbs says.
The mission director believes the diocese has been able to focus on homelessness and affordable housing partly because it was already well positioned to do so. Its existing community ministries included Cornerstone Housing for Women, which provides emergency shelter and supportive housing for women who have experienced homelessness.
The diocese also runs drop-in day programs for people struggling with homelessness. Hobbs expresses gratitude for the Anglican Foundation of Canada, which has provided grants to the diocese to support affordable housing projects.
Through such experiences, Hobbs says, the diocese of Ottawa has learned two major lessons: the value of partnerships, and that any focus as big as tackling homelessness must be at the heart of one’s mission as a diocese.
For local youth group leaders in Ottawa, helping those affected by the housing crisis is a crucial value for young Christians to internalize.
“I think we have a biblical commission to love our neighbour and serve the poor,” Pelling says. “As Christians, how can we go home to our houses and ignore that there are those without?”
Sibbald agrees. “As a volunteer with the youth program, it becomes very high on my list of things that I want to impress on the youth…. We are to love the whole world, including the homeless kid who’s shivering on the sidewalk downtown.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the next meeting of CLAY had been cancelled. The article has been modified to make clear that the meeting has merely shifted from in-person to online, and that the online CLAY gathering will take place in August 2021.