City surveys churches to build on emergency shelter program for homeless youth
OTTAWA — A year ago, Kyle Hiemstra panhandled and drank most days. He spent his nights sleeping in parking garages.
Then, last spring, he started staying in the basement of Ottawa’s First Baptist Church once a week, along with as many as five other youths in need of emergency shelter.
“Once I started using that church, feeling good about myself, my friends started taking me into their places,” said Hiemstra, 26, who had been homeless on and off for about a decade. “Good things started happening for me.”
At the time, Hiemstra didn’t know that it had taken about a year for outreach worker Jason Pino to get the City of Ottawa’s blessing to use a church as a shelter.
The city had to enact a temporary bylaw to allow the program, the first of its kind in Ottawa, since it isn’t the original use for the building. A year on, the city has started surveying other places of worship to see whether more congregations want to provide temporary refuge.
“A lot of churches are known as places of sanctuary … we felt we should be allowed to do this,” said Pino, who runs the church shelter program through Restoring Hope Ministries charity.
As well as convincing the city, Pino also had to persuade people to try the shelter. In Hiemstra’s case, that took a little while.
“I was inebriated so often that I really didn’t give a thought about it until I actually went,” Hiemstra said. “I was a wreck.”
But staying at the church once a week, on Fridays, helped him.
“Slowly, through time, the staff started helping me out, got me a pair of glasses, just helped me get my dental work done, and they supported me when I was sobering up. Now I’m housed. I don’t really drink any more,” said Hiemstra, who is working part-time jobs, including putting up posters.
Immediately, he said, he liked the shelter. He’d arrive around 9 p.m. and leave 12 hours later, having slept on a pullout cot, chatted with others using the service and played board and video games.
“I don’t really see it as a church,” said Hiemstra, who still goes when there’s extra space.
Unlike other shelters, Hiemstra said, he felt comfortable.
“At the (other) shelters, there’s just way too many people,” he said. “I never felt that any of my stuff was safe. I didn’t like that whole scene.”
Pino said he heard this from other youth, who weren’t finding space at the city’s two youth shelters, and weren’t comfortable in general shelters.
That’s why the focus at First Baptist is on youth, Pino said. But if the organization gets the go-ahead to expand the program to other churches, there would be an opportunity for more spaces on more nights, including adult and gender-specific ones.
There were 7,308 people and family members who used shelters in Ottawa in 2012, according to Ottawa’s Alliance to End Homelessness.
The city’s survey of churches is part of a larger study, meant to help create permanent city-wide regulations for using churches as shelters, to help address the gap between need and existing shelter spaces.
“The question really is, is there broad interest among places of worship for accommodating this type of service?” said city planner Alain Miguelez, adding that a recommendation will go to committee later this year.
The Out of the Cold program, on which Pino’s volunteer-based program is based, began in Toronto in 1987 after the death of a homeless man. Similar programs are now in numerous Canadian cities. Miguelez said those cities use a variety of approaches to write the church shelters into bylaws.
“What we basically want to do is something that’s well suited for Ottawa,” Miguelez said.
Ottawa originally had concerns about proximity to other shelters, homes and businesses, Pino said.
“We’ve had absolutely no issues at all — no thievery or stealing. There’s never been an issue of having to call the police. There’s been no acts of violence.”
Pino said there are always two supervisors overnight and the maximum number of beds is six.
First Baptist Rev. Scott Kindred-Barnes said he was worried there would be resistance from the community but there hasn’t been any. Social justice issues are important to his congregation, he said, so he wanted to help.
“We’re heating the building,” Kindred-Barnes said. “We have the space. It seems foolish just to let the mice run around.
“I’m not saying we have mice, but it’s kind of a waste of space, in my view, if (a shelter) can be done responsibly. So why not?”
This article was originally published by The Ottawa Citizen
February 7, 2014
By Carys Mills