As Ottawa’s pandemic respite centres close, their lessons live on

The COVID-era facility at Tom Brown Arena has closed, but what has been learned could improve the delivery of social services in Ottawa

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When recreation returns to Hintonburg’s Tom Brown Arena, the visible markers of its nearly two-year stint as a respite centre will have disappeared.

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An ice rink will cover the concrete slab that hosted tables for coffee and cots for daytime naps. Rather than clothing and food donations, arena drop-offs will be kids for hockey.

But there are intangibles that linger in the wake of the closure that people hope will last.

It was a welcoming place that could be whatever a vistor needed it to be — somewhere to find safety, comfort or company, or just a stop during their day for something to eat. Connections were formed between front-line community workers and City of Ottawa staff, as well as those who used the centre. When enough trust was built for visitors to confide their problems, they were offered collaborative, practical solutions.

The respite project at Tom Brown had its long-anticipated final day last Friday. The challenge now is carrying forward its lessons, which have the potential to vastly improve the delivery of social services in Ottawa.

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“So many people have just had, like one slip,” said the Parkdale Food Centre’s Meredith Kerr, director of development and communications. “Someone got sick, fell and hit their head … there’s just one break and it totally changes your trajectory.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, people on the margins were left facing a new level of isolation and struggling to meet basic needs. Seeing the significant distress that pandemic shutdowns were causing their clients in the spring of 2020, the Somerset West Community Health Centre’s Dawn Lyons said her community health centre (CHC) and the Centretown Community Health Centre worked with the city to re-open the McNabb Community Centre, a municipal facility on Percy Street, to offer washrooms, showers and other essentials to people who were precariously housed or homeless. 

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The health centres brought staff who knew the community McNabb was meant to serve, coming together with city staff, primarily from the recreation department, “who didn’t necessarily have experience, but certainly had a willingness and an interest and a desire to be helpful in this moment of crisis,” said Lyons, Somerset West’s director of family and community health and harm reduction. 

The respite centre at Tom Brown Arena has closed.
The respite centre at Tom Brown Arena has closed. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia

The city employees and staff from community agencies were able to learn from each other, said Brook Lynn Davies, a community support worker who redeployed from the Centretown CHC and went on to be named a team lead within what became a triad of respite centres. After more than 3,000 showers, 7,600 food requests and 130 crisis interventions, heating challenges required the closure of McNabb in the fall of 2020, but the need for respite had snowballed. 

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When provincial pandemic funding allowed the opening of the Tom Brown site that November, along with St. Paul’s downtown and Bernard Grandmaître in Vanier, the weather was worsening, the province was in the grips of a second wave of COVID-19, and people were increasingly frustrated, Davies recalled. One of the lessons exchanged between those staffing the respite centres was what it looked like to have healthy boundaries but “hold space” for someone who came in, angry and struggling. 

“I think the nice thing that happened is the community found a home,” said Davies. And city staff who had been deployed to respite “now took that different standard of care with them” when they were posted back to old positions or new jobs.

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The struggles that brought clients to the doors of respite weren’t always obvious, and their needs were multi-faceted. Staff might look at the door and see a senior or young mother walking in, looking for food, someone homeless ready for the sleep they didn’t want to turn to a shelter for, or someone facing issues with CERB benefits, employment insurance or ODSP.

They were met with an approach that involved taking the time to build trust with clients, getting to know what they needed and then finding a way to address it, whether through the provision of a service onsite  — assessment by an outreach nurse, for example — or through a connection to someone else who could help.

A particularly well-received initiative was a mobile team, launched early in 2021 by the city’s employment and social services branch, that came into the respite centres to support clients who received or could be eligible for financial assistance programs. Team members also helped people navigate other city services, such as housing, said Stephanie Bordage, an employment and social services manager. That team has now expanded beyond municipal sites to the shelter system, food banks and community health and resource centres. 

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“It reduced the need to have multiple phone calls. You had immediate points of contact. But we were also going into a place where people felt safe,” said Bordage.

And part of safety, within Tom Brown, was the creation of a place where efficient service delivery wasn’t the sole focus.

“You always think like — what need are we providing? Shower, food. And then there’s this whole social side to it. And the staff really created that environment,” said Caroline Yabsley, a city of Ottawa program manager for community shelter operations.

“The focus just wasn’t on, you know, logistically, ‘How can we help you? What do you need?’ It’s, ‘Here’s a great space,’ and just … building those relationships.”

As powerful as its outcomes proved to be, the respite project itself existed in a state of precarity, as an improvised response in repurposed spaces to an unfolding crisis. Its temporary nature was a concern for some, and relief for others — at Tom Brown, for instance, members of the Hintonburg community missed their arena, said Kitchissippi Ward Coun. Jeff Leiper.

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The understanding residents had for the respite project was also challenged by periods of use as an overnight shelter. But what Leiper noticed was that the friction largely dissolved when Tom Brown reverted to respite-only use, though the eagerness for recreation to return was still there. Now that the centre has closed permanently, visible homelessness in his ward remains, and the councillor has observed discussions about how respite-style services could continue in a different form to serve those in the area who could benefit from them.

“I don’t want to say it’s a consensus because I don’t think it is. But there is a strong feeling among many that having respite mitigated some of the broader community impacts of homelessness,” said Leiper.

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This past spring, with one respite centre closed, the remaining two given expiration dates and the transition of services back to community providers underway, city staff came to committee and council with their plan for the future. The centrepiece was a City of Ottawa “service hub” model. The first would be run out of an existing employment and social services office on Catherine Street in Centretown, open as respite at Tom Brown closed for good, and provide “an immediate, cost-effective and sustainable service offering for the community.”

At the city, Bordage explained, they wanted to provide something that would be helpful, but not duplicate what community service providers already do and “do incredibly well.” The hub also aligns with a new model the province has directed for the integrated delivery of municipal social services.

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The Catherine Street hub, which opened Tuesday, is not exactly what respite was – there are no showers, no cots – but does seek to continue key elements: a safe place to rest, city and community staff working side-by-side in one space and a model of service delivery that allows people who walk in the door with different needs — food, housing, social assistance — to find help navigating the system or get what they need, on the spot. 

The new Catherine Street community service hub, which the city has opened as the respite centre at Tom Brown Arena has closed.
The new Catherine Street community service hub, which the city has opened as the respite centre at Tom Brown Arena has closed. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia

At the community health centres deploying staff to the hub, thanks to provincial pandemic funding through March, there’s optimism about the project and that city staff are holding on to some of the important lessons of respite. Part of what the CHCs bring to the table is a push for the hub space to remain welcoming, as respite was, to the most marginalized Ottawa residents, and city staff “have really included us in the planning process in what feels to me like a really meaningful way,” said Lyons. Food, for example, wasn’t initially going to be part of the service offerings, and its importance was something they were highlighting at every meeting, she said. The city found a way to add snacks and takeaway options to the hub’s repertoire. 

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At the same time, there’s a shared sentiment at the CHCs and among other community service providers that the hub can’t and shouldn’t be where the response ends to the need for respite-type services.

“When these respite centres popped up, we wondered: How do you start to provide a service and then take it away?” said Kerr, of the Parkdale Food Centre. Even with the Catherine Street Hub opening, she shared concern about “chronically underfunded social service agencies” struggling to fill the void.

And underfunded as they feel they are, Rachel Robinson, Anglican day program executive director at The Well, St. Luke’s Table and Centre 454, said what day programs provide is ultimately a band-aid solution. “It’s needed, but it’s not changing the underlying problem of poverty.”

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Rachel Robinson of The Well, St. Luke’s Table and Centre 454.
Rachel Robinson of The Well, St. Luke’s Table and Centre 454. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia

At their current rates, “there’s no way somebody can survive on Ontario Works or ODSP, really … You can’t afford housing. You can’t eat,” said Robinson. And for people who are chronically homeless or on the streets because of addiction struggles, she sees very low-barrier housing and supports to stay housed as what’s actually needed.

By closing time on day two of operations at the Catherine Street hub, more than 70 people had been served inside, including some who were respite centre clients. A number of staff on the hub team used to work in respite and recognized some of the people they’d interacted with in the past, said Bordage.

The space will be even more vibrant in time, she noted, as they take feedback from clients. It was already animated Wednesday with loose arrangements of tables and chairs, cubicles and computer stations, and an industrial-chic aesthetic courtesy of porthole-style windows and concrete-and-carpet flooring. Earlier in the day, said Bordage, the team was talking about having clothing donations ready to give out as temperatures drop.

Something staff heard repeatedly after bringing forward their respite transition plan was that “the magic” of the centres often came down to the approach clients found inside. And it’s something Bordage said they’ve held onto, as the hub was built.

“There was no expectation, there was no policy to jump through. It was a welcoming approach and building trust.”

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