Giving the essentials: The Backpacks for the Homeless initiative

By Erin Dej

On Christmas Eve this year 2,300 people experiencing homelessness in Ottawa are expected to receive backpacks filled with hygiene products, clothing, treats, and a Tim Hortons gift card thanks to an initiative created by Ron Pitre.

On October 15, 2012 Ron’s house caught fire and he lost everything.  Luckily, no one was hurt and he had tenant insurance to help him get back on his feet. Spending thousands of dollars at once to furnish his new home left Ron feeling uneasy, and he saw it as a calling to help those in need. Ron had previously experienced a brief bout of homelessness and there was a period where he relied on food banks, including over Christmas time. He remembers how important the Christmas food boxes were to help make the holiday season special for his daughter. After the fire, Ron realized “I’m made to help someone”.

That year Ron, a music lover, attended the Shepherds of Good Hope’s Christmas Eve mass, with his keyboard and a stack of Tim Horton’s gift cards in tow. That night began something bigger than Ron could have imagined. Wanting to do more, in 2013 he handed out gift bags. In 2014 he distributed 230 backpacks, thanks to the support of Giant Tiger. In 2015 things really took off. Besides Shepherds, Backpacks for the Homeless now partners with the Ottawa Mission, Ottawa Inner City Ministries, Operation Come Home, Centre 507, the Salvation Army, and Le Gîte Ami distributing over 1,000 backpacks.

Ron Pitre and his team load up on some of the essentials that go into the backpacks

Ron Pitre and his team load up on some of the essentials that go into the backpacks


Ron now has a team of volunteers coordinating the project. Between those who donate money in the fundraising campaign to buy the backpacks and Tim Hortons cards, to the volunteers who take a backpack (or two!) to fill with essential items, to the 3 team leaders who manage the logistics of getting backpacks to and from volunteers and to the designated organizations, Ron estimates that over 1,000 people are committed to helping the cause. The volunteers, Ron says, are excited to help. Workplaces, churches, and families get involved, with many children leaving handmade Christmas cards in the backpacks. Ron says he’s overwhelmed by people’s generosity and enthusiasm to help Ottawa’s homeless.

Ron has learned a lot about homelessness over the years. He chokes up as he describes the stories people have shared with him. Ron says that he’s learned about the causes of homelessness, “it’s not because they want to be there or choose it”. Abuse, intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous Peoples, and the lack of affordable housing all contribute to homelessness. Ron’s hope is that the backpacks give people a sense of dignity and warmth that they deserve during the Christmas season.

The Backpacks for the Homeless initiative is working to raise another $5,000 in donations to reach its 2016 goal of providing 2,300 backpacks to Ottawa’s homeless. They are holding a fundraising event this Thursday, November 17th at 6:30pm at Broadway Bar and Grill (1896 Prince of Wales Drive). Anyone wishing to volunteer to fill a backpack can sign up at or visit their Facebook page.

November 16th, 2016|Categories: Ask Me Ottawa|3 Comments

Centre 454 – An Integral Part of the Community

By Sarina Bhaiwala

If you stop by Centre 454 anytime during the week, you’ll find a blossoming garden and welcoming community. First established in the basement of St. Alban’s church in 1945, the day program is one of five community ministries of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. Centre 454 offers drop-in support services and social activities for individuals who are precariously housed or homeless in Ottawa.

Although the Centre changed locations to Murray Street more than a decade ago, it returned to its original location on King Edward in 2012 after receiving city and diocesan funding to restore St. Alban’s basement. This decision was accompanied by some concerns from the surrounding neighbourhood. Residents feared the Centre would bring drug use, vandalism, litter, and conflict with residents. Jen Crawford, the Executive Director of Centre 454, understands where the community’s worries stemmed from. With all the social service agencies in this area, “there is already a lot of action going on,” she said.

The Centre was aware of these concerns, and was proactive in building a positive relationship with the surrounding community after the move. The staff worked to quell the misunderstandings regarding the Centre and its visitors; they committed to doing a walk around the building every morning to make sure there was no garbage and that everything was in order. “It’s three years later and our staff still do it,” said Crawford. The Centre has also participated in the citywide “Cleaning the Capital” event every year to clean the three-block radius that surrounds its property.


September 14th, 2016|Categories: Ask Me Ottawa|1 Comment

“Keep on breathing”: Jim Jenkins wins at more than soccer in the Homeless World Cup

By Erin Dej

Jim Jenkins is a goalie for an international soccer league. He has also experienced homelessness, mental health challenges, and struggled with addiction. Jim was one of a few Canadians, and only Ottawa resident, chosen for the 2015 Street Soccer Canada – National Team who played in the Homeless World Cup in Amsterdam, Netherlands last summer.

It has been a long road for Jim to get to Amsterdam. He spent a year and a half in Ottawa shelters, some of that time fighting for his life with double pneumonia while detoxing. Never one to give up, Jim decided that “life is still a goal” and fought to regain his health and his life. He eventually secured housing through Ottawa Community Housing and has remained successfully housed for the last eight years.


August 5th, 2016|Categories: Ask Me Ottawa|0 Comments

Feeling Safe and Welcome: St. Joe’s Women’s Centre

By Julia Anderson

The most high stakes game of Bingo you have ever laid eyes on takes place each Friday at St. Joe’s Women’s Centre. The prizes might not be glamourous or expensive, but for the homeless and vulnerably housed women who use St. Joe’s as their sanctuary, winning a little something extra can go a long way. On Friday January 22nd, as morning waned into afternoon, the women began to gather around the long wooden table and clamoured to ensure their names were on the list to participate in the game. The coveted prizes of the week were donated purses that Jen, a Social Service student at Algonquin College completing a practicum at St. Joe’s, worked hard to fill with as many treats as possible: hats, mittens, scarves, and chocolate.

St. Joe’s was founded in 1984 and began primarily as a drop in centre where women could come in to get out of the cold or seek shelter. Over the years the centre has moved locations and blossomed into a fully functioning daytime shelter that provides women with specific programs to meet their needs. Many of these changes and improvements are the result of the hard work done by devoted staff members such as Isabelle Mackay and Michelle Torunski, who are the program coordinators at St. Joe’s.


July 4th, 2016|Categories: Ask Me Ottawa|0 Comments

How running saved my life: From 26 ounces to 26 miles

By Rob MacDonald, Housing Help


As I prepare for the National Capital Race Weekend in 2016, I am in my thirty seventh year of running. Regardless of all the years and miles, every race is still a time for reflection on how it all began and how running saved my life at a young age. I ran my first marathon in 1981 and clocked a 2:55 time at the finish line.  The cheering and thunderous applause was overwhelming to this novice in his first race. However, the story didn’t begin or end there.

Two years earlier, it was a much more depressing time in my life.  I had just lost my partner to suicide, my best friend had been killed in a car accident, and another friend had decided to take her own life while four months pregnant. For myself, I was prone to depression and had also survived a suicide attempt. Grieving the loss of my partner back in those days was the most horrible, isolating experience one could ever imagine.  It was a gay relationship and, like so many others back then, it was a very closeted affair.  When my partner took his life, I had no one to turn to, and no one fully understood the magnitude of my loss. I grieved in solitude, in silence and tremendous pain.


May 26th, 2016|Categories: Ask Me Ottawa|3 Comments