In these difficult and unprecedented times, when Ottawa businesses are closing down and laying off staff due to the coronavirus outbreak, something remarkable is happening: they’re continuing to reach out to see what they can do to help the homeless.
“A lot of them have asked if there is food that they can donate,” said Shepherds of Good Hope president and CEO Deirdre Freiheit. “I just think it’s incredible.”
Among the groups that deserve to be singled out for their kindness is the hotel industry. Sadly, it’s been “decimated” by the COVID-19 crisis, said Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association and a volunteer board member with the Shepherds of Good Hope.
The welcome mat for travellers has officially been yanked. Local hotels are functioning under 10 percent occupancy while many others are temporarily closed, until at least May 1 or June 1. The iconic Chateau Laurier will join the ranks of shuttered hotels Saturday afternoon, the local hotel announced Friday.
“There will be casualties,” said Ball of the hotel industry. “There will be properties that may not make it back.”
Still, many hotels are quietly passing along their perishable food to those who need it most, through the Shepherds of Good Hope, rather than have it go to waste. Their philanthropy comes on the heels of its participation in the Taste for Hope culinary benefit that raised more than $86,000 earlier this month for Shepherds of Good Hope, as well as the hotels' involvement in the 20th annual Hoteliers Have Heart. They donated 15-plus tonnes of food, worth nearly $23,000, during the week-long benefit in mid-February.
Over the event’s past two decades, the hotels' contributions have added up to $223,400 worth of food donations from members of the OGHA. They purchase food from suppliers at discounted prices.
“It’s amazing how generous they are in the community,” said Ball. “Yet, they don’t want any credit for it. I don’t think that’s why they do it. They help because they’re generous at heart and they’re just community players.
“I just think it’s part of their DNA.”
The hotels also donate no-longer-needed furniture, linens, kitchen utensils and other items year round, to the Shepherds, which runs shelter services, supportive housing programs and a soup kitchen. It also operates an evening drop-in program that it's had to temporarily cancel as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The OGHA represents about 60 member hotels. They normally employ some 6,000 employees but these days that number has plummeted to about 2,000 or fewer due to the layoffs, said Ball.
One of the first businesses to start transporting extra food over to the Shepherds once coronavirus trouble loomed was the Andaz Hotel in the ByWard Market. It donated more than 181 kilograms (400 pounds) of food. It’s become tradition for its executive chef, Stephen La Salle, along with his staff, to cook and serve the food during the Shepherds’ annual appreciation night for its volunteers. As well, the Andaz team visits the Shepherds a couple of times a year to volunteer its time and talents in the kitchen, all in support of the poor and homeless.
Along with the hotel industry, there have been food donations from: Bridgehead Coffee, The Waverley Elgin, Prova Bar and Kitchen, The Bridge Public House, Shopify, Laura's Your Independent Grocer in Kanata, the University of Ottawa, Moncion's Your Independent Grocer on River Road and Metro McCarthy Rd.
“I’m amazed at how the community comes together,” said Freiheit.
The Shepherds of Good Hope has been working almost around the clock to prepare for the days and weeks that lie ahead. It expects it’s only a matter of time until the coronavirus makes an appearance among its vulnerable population.
“We’re doing the best we can to get ready for when it happens because, from everything we know, it will happen,” said Freiheit.
When asked how much sleep she’s been getting this week, Freiheit said about four to four-and-a-half hours a night.
Perhaps most worrisome is the overcapacity of the shelters that house homeless men and women. On a good day, they accommodate about 268 men and women. “We’re close to 300 these days, because of the housing crisis,” said Freiheit. “All of the shelters are full and overflowing, which is going to create a challenge in this climate.”
Returning for a moment to the issue of the near-vacant hotels: They could come in handy in dealing with a serious COVID-19 outbreak, says Ball.
If hospitals become overwhelmed with diseased patients, the affected homeless population will need to be isolated somewhere. “There’s a chance that hotels might be called upon,” said Ball.
Shepherds of Good Hope is putting additional measures in place to keep Ottawa’s most vulnerable population safe, such as limiting the number of people coming into its soup kitchen and switching to bagged lunches for the homeless populations.
The organization is currently facing a temporary drop in volunteers, since many of its helpers are seniors and retired people, who are at greater risk of getting the disease because of their ages and because they tend to travel.
Freiheit praised her staff for its commitment to caring for the city’s homeless population. Just one of the many ways that they are helping, she said, is by keeping their clients informed, since they don’t have the same kind of around-the-clock access to the news as the rest of the public.