Innovation is the Watchword at Shepherds of Good Hope

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Shepherds of Good Hope has come a long way since its modest beginnings 34 years ago.

 

To better serve its increasingly diverse clientele, the organization has expanded its programs and specialized “to go beyond its strategic plan.”

 

“We’re really trying to focus on innovative programs that go beyond giving somebody a bowl of soup and a bed for the night [to address], on a more individual level, some of the needs that might have resulted in them being chronically homeless,” says Caroline Cox, Senior Manager for the Transitional Shelter Services.

 

The organization’s ethos, as Cox puts it, is: “If there’s a need, we try to fill that need.”

 

MAP

The Managed Alcohol Program (MAP) is an example where Shepherds is trying to fill a niche that nobody else in the region is filling. The program is part of a broader network of Managed Alcohol Programs throughout the country, and the only one in Ottawa.

 

“It may seem a little crazy to people who are stuck in that sort of old-school view of addiction, that, if you’re still drinking, then you’re not doing well.”

Every hour, participants are served a small dose of alcohol to allow their bodies the time to cope with the withdrawal symptoms. Essentially, it’s like trying to give up tobacco using nicotine patches or quit caffeine by progressively reducing one’s intake. Though not everybody agrees with this novel method.

 

“It may seem a little crazy to people who are stuck in that sort of old-school view of addiction, that, if you’re still drinking, then you’re not doing well,” says Cox.

 

Although there is currently no data measuring the program’s impact, Cox believes the mere fact that participants are drinking the amount that is served to them – therefore managing their use – is considered a success. Besides, the program may have contributed to reducing the City’s expenses. As BBC.com, on July 7, 2016, reports: “[…] it is not unrealistic to assume that the city of Ottawa has saved millions of dollars.”

 

ATTRACTIVE WORKPLACE CULTURE

For Cox, Shepherds’ innovative and non-judgemental environment “really aligned well with [her] values.” “There’s always something new happening; you’re constantly trying to come up with new services to meet the needs of the clients,” she says, adding that employees at Shepherds are being challenged “in a big picture way, and also in a micro way, like the individual client who challenges [them] every day. It’s never ever boring.”

 

A veteran at Shepherds, Cox says that like many of the staff she started out as a casual frontline worker while in her undergrad. After she did a placement at Cornerstone Shelter for women, “her first real interaction with homeless people,” she landed her first job with the organization. Little did she know that she would end up staying as long as she has. “You don’t really think you’re going to get a job in your third year of university and stick with it forever, but I just became sucked in by what the organization is doing.”

 

Her sphere of responsibilities encompasses the Emergency and Specialized Shelters, many of which provide 24/7 staff care. Cox also oversees a host of support services, notably: the food bank, clothing program, community meals and drop in.

 

THE SYSTEM’S FAULT

One thing Cox has learned working in the field is that there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are people who are homeless. “It’s a combination of the structural, the individual and the societal; many different systems intersect in the homeless shelter,” she says.

 

“People don’t just wake up in the morning and decide, ‘a homeless shelter is the place for me.'”

Chief among these reasons is the inefficiency of our social infrastructure. “Our social safety net in terms of how we take care of people who have complex needs, whether it’s mental health, physical health, addictions, brain injuries, trauma… it’s just not adequate. People end up in shelters because every other system has failed them.”

 

Many, she says, have been institutionalized in child welfare, criminal justice, mental health or addictions treatment systems before ending up on the streets. “People don’t just wake up in the morning and decide, ‘a homeless shelter is the place for me.’”  

 

Cultural alienation is another contributing factor to homelessness in Canada. Whereas Indigenous people make up 22.6% of Shepherds’ shelter population, catering to the specific needs of this clientele “was not originally part of the organization’s background.” “We had to ask ourselves: ‘How can we serve these clients who have a lot of issues – like substance abuse and mental health issues – on top of cultural alienation, residential schools legacy, and the ongoing colonization violence?'” Cox explains. 

 

The answer came in the shape of a partnership with different agencies, including Tungasuvvingat Inuit (TI), the Social Service Agency for the Inuit population. “We partnered for a grant with TI to [hire] an Inuit cultural liaison officer – that’s a full-time staff member that we have in the building – [who] does various activities,” says Cox.   

 

The Inuit Cultural Liaison Officer helps bridge the cultural and linguistic gap between Shepherds staff members and the Aboriginals. “We make a lot of assumptions as mainstream providers that our worldview is the worldview understood by everybody and that’s not the case,” Cox muses. 

 

TRANSITIONAL EMERGENCY SHELTER PROGRAM

According to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health‘s latest survey, mental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada, with one in five Canadians experiencing a mental health or addiction problem.

 

In Ottawa proper, 54 per cent of homeless people is thought to have suffered from a combination of chronic health issues, mental illness, and substance abuse, as reported by The Ottawa Citizen. The data was obtained from a 2015 survey conducted by The Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa (ATEH).

 

To address these growing mental health problems, Shepherds has been working in concert with a network of local community organizations to train staff and provide enhanced services. “We’ve developed a lot of capacity and creativity around how we can work with clients who mainstream services have not been able to work well with,” says Cox, noting that Shepherds specializes in multiple complex issues – or, in the organization’s parlance: “high acuities.”

 

She says a large number of clients at Shepherds exhibit a plethora of complex and “intertwining” issues.”We’ll see someone with an underlying mental health issue managing that with substance use; they’re also using drugs because there’s trauma in their history – they might have acquired a brain injury – or all of these things together.” 

 

To help these “high acuities” clients address specific issues, Shepherds of Good Hope has partnered with Ottawa Inner City Health, the Royal Ottawa Hospital, and Canadian Mental Health to create the Transitional Emergency Shelter Program (TESP).

 

“We recognized there was a need to enhance existing capacity for treatment and care for people who were not engaged in services due to challenging or unsafe behaviours and lifestyle,” says Cox. The program, which provides specialized treatment in mental health and concurrent disorders, can accommodate up to 49 people – both men and women – who are not part of the mainstream homelessness scene.

 

“We find that we can maximize the amount of service we’re able to provide if we don’t differentiate between what gender can access it. So rather than having an addictions worker for men and an addictions worker for women, we can have one person that either gender can come see,” says Cox.

 

TESP is a program of last resort for people who are grappling with extreme drug addictions and mental disorders, and who are reluctant to seek out treatment. “We are known as the shelter that, if every other option has fallen away for people, we will still take them and we will try to work with them [and] help them,” says Cox.

 

OPIOID CRISIS

In light of British Columbia’s emergency response to the ongoing fentanyl crisis, and as a way to mitigate the rapidly growing epidemics, Cox says Ottawa Public health has done a lot of work with partner agencies like Shepherds, local community health centres, and Ottawa Inner City Health to get the word out and around.

 

“We work a lot with Ottawa Public Health and something they do is issue alerts if they are seeing or hearing that certain substances may be laced with fentanyl,” says Cox. “If there’s an increased risk of overdose then they’re going to issue an alert for everybody to see and just so that they’re more aware of what they could be using.”

 

Cox says the naloxone kits have also been “pushed a lot.” This is owing to a recent relaxation of regulations to make access to the antidote easier – a “very welcome change,” in her opinion. “Many people probably would have died in the shelter if we had not had easy access to the naloxone and been able to revive them. We’ve definitely seen a positive change there.”

 

While clients are encouraged to carry a personal kit to be able to help themselves or a friend, trained nurses are on duty 24/7 thanks to a partnership with Ottawa Inner City Health. Shepherds also trains all of its staff to administer naloxone. “We’re prepared in the event that we need to administer it, which is a big change from when I first started here nine years ago,” says Cox. “It’s definitely saved lives.”

 

According to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, 1 of every 8 deaths among Ontarians aged 25 to 34 is related to opioid use.

 

DONATE OR GET INVOLVED

As with all non-profit organizations, public support is crucial to bringing about changes in local communities. Whether in the form of time, goods or money, there is much one can do to help charities move forward, develop staffing capacity or even start new programs.

 

“[At Shepherds], people often volunteer in areas that are within their sphere of expertise,” says Cox. “Some do bingos, others do spa nights, landscaping, book clubs, etc. All you need is a few skills and some spare time.”

 

If you’d rather make a donation, there are several options available to you.

 

The Monthly Giving Program allows donors to give money every month without having to lift a finger. Every first or 15th of the month your account will be debited, and you’ll receive a tax receipt at the end of the fiscal year.

 

You can also purchase a leaf through the Tree of Hope campaign to help raise money for the upgrade of Hope Living, Shepherds’ new supportive living facility for seniors and people with mental health issues in Kanata. You can even donate a birthday, a car or a stock, or leave a gift in your will.

 

“Individual and corporate donations are a really important piece to us because they allow us to innovate,” says Cox. Among other things, they allow the organization to take its clients out “to do activities and be part of the community,” which is the first step to helping them reintegrate into society.

 

A TASTE FOR HOPE

Shepherds of Good Hope’s signature fundraiser, A Taste for Hope, returns for a fifth year. You can sample some of Ottawa’s top chefs’ culinary concoctions, as well as a fine selection of wines, beer, and cocktails. This year, the event will be held at the Horticulture Building, Lansdowne Park, on Wednesday, March 22, from 6 to 9 pm. You can get more information and purchase tickets at tasteforhope.com.

 

 

Follow Annabelle Landry:

Freelance Writer

A bilingual freelance writer and self-taught photographer, I seek to deepen my understanding of cultural differences and, through my writing, inspire, educate and influence people to embrace change for the betterment of humankind.

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