Drop-in centre for homeless moving downtown

Lisa Xing, Centretown News

Lisa Xing, Centretown News

Ken McClaren (left), co-ordinator of a homeless drop-in centre that’s moving to Centretown in April, talks with Gerard Widdifield, a frequent visitor to the centre.

A weekly drop-in centre for homeless people in Sandy Hill will be moving to Centretown by the end of next month, possibly attracting more of Ottawa’s less privileged to the area in hopes of receiving help and kindness.

Ken McClaren, executive director for Ottawa Innercity Ministries, says his organization’s drop-in service will be moving from its current location at St. Paul’s Eastern United Church to a new location in Centretown. The new location is yet to be confirmed, but McClaren says he is considering the Salvation Army on Gladstone Avenue near Bank Street.

About 30 volunteers will come every Wednesday for six hours to give the homeless free haircuts, hot meals, foot care and entertainment, says McClaren.

The drop-in centre will also offer “touch care,” a light, affectionate massage that he says provides a change to the typical hardship homeless people are exposed to on a regular basis.

“A caring touch and a loving touch is something that is rare for these people,” says McClaren.

This centre will replace a smaller one operating on Tuesdays in the Ottawa Innercity Ministries’ facilities, just around the corner from the Gladstone Salvation Army.

The new location should be able to accommodate about 100 people, says McClaren – about 40 more than the one it is replacing.

Judy McIntosh, an associate officer with the Gladstone Salvation Army, says she is excited at the possibility of being partners with McClaren and his organization. The centre would be a good fit for her building, she says, because it already attracts much of the same clientele.

“We’ve been having people dropping in for years,” says McIntosh. “But we’re hoping that there will be new people here too.”

McIntosh and her associates might have to work harder to appease their neighbours if this centre does move into the Salvation Army’s building because, unlike their existing services, it would operate during work hours, she says.

Mario LaRiccia, the owner of the tailor business and building next door, has donated to the Salvation Army in the past and says he likes the idea of helping the homeless.     

But, after having some bad experiences, LaRiccia says he is worried that a program that attracts more homeless people would add to problems at his building’s entrances.

“I have nothing against the Salvation Army, don’t get me wrong,” he says.

“I just don’t want it to interfere with my business. I don’t want my tenants to be scared. And they are scared.”

LaRiccia has owned the building for 30 years, he says, and the Salvation Army has been next door the whole time.

He has had a few problems with homeless people congregating in the entrance to his tenant’s upstairs apartment and leaving garbage in front of his business, he says.

While the Salvation Army cannot control what its visitors do outside their property, LaRiccia says the organization has often helped to pick up the litter.

McIntosh says continued communication with the Salvation Army’s neighbours would be essential if the centre moves there.

“We try to be very respectful of our neighbours,” she says. “So if there is any problem at all then they come to us and we do our utmost to address their issues.”

The existing drop-in centre at St. Paul’s church in Sandy Hill helps up to 200 homeless people each Wednesday, about twice the number than the Centretown facility will be able to accommodate.

But McClaren says there are other shelters and services in Sandy Hill, such as the Shepherds of Good Hope, which can provide services to the people that will be left behind.

The new, smaller facility, says McClaren, will allow his volunteers to spend more personal time with each visitor.

He says it will also free up resources to start new initiatives, like art and drama programs for the homeless.