Preventing homeless youth from becoming homeless adults
When Audrey Hayes was 17, she slept on her friends’ couches. “I’ve spent a couple nights on the streets,” the young Ottawa woman reveals, “but I mostly was in shelters and couch-surfing. It definitely wasn’t anywhere stable.”
This teen did manage to make a smart move, though. She walked in the door of Operation Come Home (OCH) and she kept going back.
Located at 150 Gloucester Street, Operation Come Home is an organization dedicated to preventing homeless youth from becoming homeless adults. Geared to youth aged 16 and up, the downtown centre provides a slew of programs and resources, including education and employment, to give them a hand up in life.
Those supports made a huge difference for Audrey. “I was attending OCH [and] … I guess they just saw great potential in me and offered me a job,” she explains. Today’s she works at BeadWorks, an OCH initiative that allows street-involved and at-risk youth to develop their talents and skills by creating and selling unique jewelry. The one-of-a-kind pieces are sold, along with other creations, at re: Purpose, OCH’s boutique and storefront at 150 Gloucester.
When the youth are in need of someone to listen, Audrey is there to provide peer-to-peer support. “Whether … they are getting kicked out of their house or even if it is just guy problems, they probably feel more comfortable talking to me” than another staff member, Audrey says. “I can cry with them, I can laugh with them.” The example she sets can also help them.
Once upon a time, Operation Come Home was Operation Go Home. Back in 1971, there was a local United Church minister who had a knack for connecting with Ottawa street kids and who saw a need to help young runaways. Reverend Norman Johnston had connections too. With the support of various agencies, he launched this venture to reach out to youth and to help them return to their family homes. Over the years there was a national Operation Go Home mandate, then in 2009 Operation Go Home became Operation Come Home in order to better articulate its community mission. Today, the commitment remains unflagging. Reunite, OCH’s founding program, continues to reconnect runaway youth with their families across Canada. In addition, the community organization helps hundreds of homeless and at-risk youth right here in Ottawa each year.
Natalie Elliot is co-manager of operations at OCH and she says, “We feel, as a team, that the more services we can offer our youth now, [the more we can] help them gain employment, education and skills” for the future. The aim, she adds, is “to prepare them for their adult world of independent housing and careers.”
Always, though, the focus is on what matters and what works for the young people served.
Not only are OCH’s offerings designed to appeal, so is the vibe at the downtown centre. When you enter its front hall, you notice a map covering one wall. Pins identify each city or town in which OCH has helped a youth. Various rooms are decorated with colourful artworks and you can hear the sounds of guitars playing and people laughing. There’s also an echo of footsteps overhead, since schoolwork is happening upstairs. On the second floor, the Rogers Achievement Centre supports street-involved youth to get back into academic studies and to complete high school. Thanks to a partnership with Lester B. Pearson High School and the Ottawa Catholic School Board, full-time course instruction is provided by a licensed teacher. A social support worker and a literacy support worker are on hand as well to help youth achieve success.
As the literacy support worker, Ashley Brunette does one-on-one tutoring and assists students with paperwork. “I help the youth apply for independent correspondence credits through the Independent Learning Centre in Toronto,” she notes, adding, “I also provide assistance in building their resume and cover letter.”
The literacy support includes financial literacy. Ashley presents Finance Matters, a six-week workshop that focuses on subjects such as saving, budgeting, investments, credit and credit history, as well as consumerism and how to handle creditors.
Self-investment? That starts with Operation Come Home and its diverse offerings. Housing Works helps youth find and maintain safe, affordable housing, BottleWorks—a commercial empty bottle pick-up service—allows them to get work experience and Innovation Works supports them to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses.
Thanks to Farmworks, there are employment and learning opportunities on a farm in Blackburn Hamlet where organic produce is grown and harvested. “Last year we had an acre of farmland and we hired 17 youth to work,” Natalie mentions.
In action from mid-June to mid-October, Farmworks generates revenue via Community Supported Agriculture shares sold to individuals, restaurants and community leaders. A $575 share provides 18 weeks of produce, averaging out to about $37 per week in organic produce for a family of four. It’s a great deal all around, since just as the veggies grow, so do the job and life skills of at-risk youth.
For young people needing and willing to make a change in life, Operation Come Home offers a bright future. Whether they choose to stop in for Morning Breakfast Program, access the drop-in and resource centre or respond to street outreach efforts, they know the welcome mat is always out for them. For details about OCH and how you can support it, see operationcomehome.ca and call 613 230-4663.
* With files and photos from Emily Hutton