Shepherds of Good Hope: Creating Community for All in Lowertown

By: Deirdre Freiheit

Shepherds of Good Hope (SGH) believes in creating homes for all, community for all, and hope for all. There is no typical person who comes to SGH for support. There may be common themes to their stories, most notably trauma and loss. There are marginalized groups that disproportionately experience homelessness, such as indigenous peoples and women.

This past year has been difficult for everyone. Homelessness in Lowertown has become so much more acute and visible during the pandemic. We understand that the environment in many parts of Lowertown has been increasingly challenging for residents. It has been the same for SGH and those who use our services. At the same time, we are moving forward with our goals to decrease our emergency shelter beds and increase supportive housing options, including our new development at 216 Murray Street.

The language we use when we talk about our vulnerable population is important. There is a lot of dehumanizing language. Labelling individuals as “the homeless” is stigmatizing. This is rarely done maliciously, but is often experienced as limiting and stigmatizing. The word “homeless” describes a person’s housing situation. It does not define who they are. Most of us would not like the lowest points in our lives to be used to define us.

Our use of the term “people experiencing homelessness” is very purposeful. When we consider homelessness as an experience we begin to humanize people who are often cast aside unless they conform to society’s expectations. Expectations that are often set by those of us who have never experienced the kinds of situations that lead individuals to experience homelessness.

Our core values at SGH are based on providing services and supports to vulnerable individuals where they are in their journeys, without judgment. Although SGH operates programs across Ottawa, our roots are in Lowertown. Starting almost 40 years ago, we opened our first soup kitchen, shelter and supportive housing residences here. Our experience in Lowertown is of a generous, compassionate community with a strong interest in the well-being of all of its neighbours.

There is no one-size fits all solution to homelessness. We are, however, optimistic that we are on the brink of a fundamental shift in the way we deliver our services in the City of Ottawa. As we do this, we must start all discussions about homelessness with a simple premise: people experiencing homelessness are people.

The demographics of the people who use our services at SGH are varied; their stories are varied; and their needs are varied. We work with Indigenous peoples, seniors, newcomers, people with disabilities, gender diverse individuals and more. Nobody chooses to become homeless but everyone deserves choice in where they live. Our vision for the future is one in which experiences of homelessness are brief, and people are supported to choose the housing that is right for them. Communities around the world have done it, and we can too.

Our future multipurpose building at 216 Murray is designed to address many of the community’s concerns. It will offer a day and evening drop-in program and community kitchen to assist people in the area experiencing homelessness, food insecurity and isolation. Importantly, it will provide permanent housing with supports to people who have been living in crowded shelters for years – not by choice, but because there is a shocking lack of housing options in our city that meet their needs. We do not pretend to be the solution for ending homelessness but we are a part of it.

When we treat people who are experiencing homelessness with empathy and compassion, we see the individual. Their beautiful, tragic and inspiring stories are part of the diverse history of the Lowertown community.

Deirdre Freiheit is President & CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope and Shepherds of Good Hope Foundation and Chair of the Alliance to End Homelessness. Deirdre has been a leader in the not-for-profit sector for almost 30 years.