A couple of months ago I came across an article online about an Ottawa woman who works with the homeless. Reading the article I was stuck by the thought, “That is my kind of social worker” when I get to Ottawa I must look her up. Two days ago I had the great good fortune to meet Mary Martha Hale… she shares my commitment to the homeless and practices what I call free-style social work. Basically free-style social work means treating everyone with kindness and respect and being present for the clients with whatever is needed in any given moment. This has been my personal philosophy and is shared by many of the people I have worked with over the years. Today I don’t wish to talk about “our Mary Martha” as she is affectionately referred to by her staff and clients. Today I want to talk about the result of putting that philosophy into action.
When I first arrived in Ottawa I went to Centre 454 and have visited often over this past month. Forged partly by design and partly by default…this place is what every drop-in should be…it is in a word flawless. OK… one flaw, on movie day, game playing should be moved into the meeting room.
Every staff member from administrator to volunteers spends much of their time interacting with the participants (Mary Martha’s word for clients). They will be chatting over coffee, playing cards or board games, having a smoke or just hanging out. This is how trust is built. Truly effective counseling must be done in an atmosphere of trust. Because these trust relationships lead to situations where a client may require private time with a staff person, the Centre’s small bank of offices is accessible for use by all staff, full or part-time. Community volunteers man the desk and do other task within their personal comfort level. Clients are hired for short stints to manage the laundry room or kitchen… this provides them with a little extra cash and a small taste of job responsibility.
Administration hires like minded individuals and compensates them appropriately… too often those working in human services are paid little more than minimum wage. I imagine getting a full time position at Centre 454 would be like becoming a tenured professor at some prestigious university. Much coveted and seldom vacated. Other then the core staff, there are a number of part-time staff, who after a few months will leave for full-time positions elsewhere. Normally, I would feel this is a bad practice, but in this case I see these positions as internships; a chance for young people to learn what social work is meant to be.
Because of the centre’s small size they have a schedule of services which are being provided by representative from other agencies. One day per week the housing help centre sends Allison, Wabano Native Health Centre sends Steve; there are also visits from public health and education and employment services. Most drop-ins try to provide these services in house. The advantage to the client of what Centre 454 is doing, is that it introduces the client to agencies outside their comfort zone. Once one gets to know a representative from meeting them at 454, going down to the agency itself for assistance becomes less intimidating. Instead of having one resource… Mary Martha’s participants are being given a whole community of resources.
Angels of the Road has taken me to probably 100 facilities in over half of Canada, and Centre 454 is light-years above and beyond anything else I have seen. Every agency within the shelter industry is well intended but sadly too often we are doing as much harm as good, for our clients. Providing the homeless and street population with warm beds and nourishing food is important. But if we are truly going to move people forward in their lives, we must warm the soul and nourish the psyche and no one I have found thus far, is doing this better then Centre 454.