Giving Guide: Grassroots charities share their stories of working in Ottawa’s downtown

giving guide

In Ottawa today, there are few issues more pressing than the future of downtown.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown businesses and offices have been greatly challenged as employees move toward virtual work options. Meanwhile, high inflation and the rising cost of living are pushing many less fortunate citizens to the brink, officials agree.

“We’re seeing the cascading effects of multiple, intersecting crises related to poverty, hunger, housing, mental health and addiction. In the best of times, our city’s front-line agencies have their hands full,” says Michael Maidment, president and CEO of the Ottawa Community Foundation. “Right now, the need for their services is unprecedented. These organizations and others are critical in helping the most vulnerable among us, which underlines our responsibility to support their work.”

OBJ360 (Sponsored)

As Ottawa seeks solutions to bolster its historic downtown core, Jeff Todd, president of AFP Ottawa, spoke with three small non-profits that are making a difference.

Immigration Women Services Ottawa (IWSO)

What role does your organization play in the community? 

We provide targeted services that address the unique needs and challenges of immigrant and racialized women and their children, many of whom are among the most vulnerable and marginalized in our community.  Services include crisis and counselling for survivors of violence or those at risk of experiencing gender-based violence; settlement and integration services for newcomer women; language interpretation and translation services offered in over 70 languages by professional interpreters; and a suite of other programs and activities that create employment and leadership opportunities for this target group.

What is the biggest challenge facing downtown Ottawa? 

We see several challenges facing downtown Ottawa but, at this point in time, we consider the biggest to be inadequate housing. This is particularly true for women fleeing violence, especially newcomer women who have complex needs. There are simply not enough shelter spaces for women fleeing violence in Ottawa. First-stage and overflow shelters are mostly always full. Some women are placed in motels as a last resort, but that has its own safety and other implications. Consequently, many immigrant and racialized women stay with their abusive partners and put themselves and their children at grave risk of physical and emotional harm. 

For donors and volunteers, how can people help?

IWSO needs financial support to continue providing these much-needed services to immigrant and racialized women and their children in downtown Ottawa. Financial donations to our Children Who Witness Violence Program would be greatly appreciated. Through this program, children between the ages of six and 13 receive free, culturally-appropriate and trauma-informed counselling in a timely manner. This program also provides counselling to immigrant and racialized girls who have been exposed to trafficking. Financial donations will enable us to sustain this program and continue to provide this critical service to these vulnerable children and youth who are the future of our community.

We welcome volunteers to assist us with our activities such as French conversation circles, arts and crafts sessions, and mentorship.

Operation Come Home

What role does your organization play in the community?

Operation Come Home is a hub for youth aged 16 to 25 experiencing homelessness or who are at imminent risk of homelessness in Ottawa. We help 700 youth each year secure housing, complete high school and obtain employment by providing social supports, mental health and substance use counselling. We also help with basic necessities such as warm meals, clothing and crisis support.

What is the biggest challenge facing downtown Ottawa?

Increasing living costs have made it challenging for many people to meet their monthly bills, which is leading to increased homelessness. At the same time, our city is dealing with a significant challenge with widespread illicit opioids and other harmful substances. These street drugs are leading to overdoses, addictions and exacerbated mental health challenges for many people in poverty in Ottawa’s downtown core. So we have a high number of people downtown with challenges and nowhere else to turn. 

For donors and volunteers, how can people help?

Improving life downtown is a key priority for us, as a safer downtown will benefit our youth. We are working actively to improve life downtown through a variety of actions. Operation Come Home provides a safe drop-in space on weekdays, in the evenings and on weekends so that youth have a safe place to go. Our street outreach team is active in the ByWard Market, Centretown, Vanier and other areas to ensure people on the street can access services that will help. Our staff take special care to patrol our block and maintain a clean, safe environment for people downtown by picking up garbage, engaging local residents and talking with people who are on the street. And we are working to improve the overall impression of Centretown by participating in street art and mural projects, having our youth paint new artworks in public spaces that enliven the city and make Centretown a beautiful place to be.

Others downtown can help with similar actions. If local residents are interested, they can volunteer with Operation Come Home and help us with our programs. If they are engaged more directly in the community, helping with small actions like maintaining clean streets and (if people are comfortable doing so) offering help to those experiencing homelessness can go a long way.


What role does your organization play in the community?

Highjinx is a unique social enterprise that supports itself and our vulnerable community members without formal funding — just neighbours helping neighbours. We run a vintage shop in a 150-year-old house that allows us to also have a community pantry, a furniture bank, as well as space for our neighbours to get things they need, feel included and have some laughs. We provide traditional social work services in a very non-traditional way.

What is the biggest challenge facing downtown Ottawa?

Housing. There is a severe shortage of housing and, while it is a national crisis, we see an increasing need to give our residents the dignity of having somewhere they can feel safe, sheltered and therefore can begin to actively participate in their neighbourhood.

For donors and volunteers, how can people help?

People can help us help our neighbours in so many creative ways. Bake some muffins at home, organize a food drive at work, have a sandwich making party, collect sleeping bags and donate them. We can accept homemade foods, frozen meals, donations of cool things to sell to keep our doors open.

To make our downtown community thrive, we need to use our public spaces, support businesses and enjoy a social community. We could work harder to be kinder neighbours to those that are unhoused and awaiting safe and secure housing, helping them to feel connected rather than forgotten. There are so many things that could improve our city, but being a good neighbour is the best place to start.

Jeff Todd is the president of AFP Ottawa Chapter and VP of marketing and communications for the WCPD Foundation.

To read other content about giving in Ottawa, check out the 2023 Ottawa Region Giving Guide.

Get our email newsletters

Get up-to-date news about the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Ottawa and beyond.

By signing up you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.