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.

Since returning to King Edward, the Centre has received an outpouring of positive feedback from the surrounding area. Many of the condo owners are now donors for the Centre after witnessing the effort that the staff and clients put into the Centre’s upkeep.

Centre 454 hosts barbecues and community events where everyone in the community is welcome. “It’s about getting people familiar with the Centre and even just the space — it’s not some basement-dwelling place… we really do build a community here.”

One condo resident submitted a picture taken of the Centre during its “barn raising party” with the caption, “keep up the great work.” Another neighbour commented, “if everyone in our community cared as much as you guys do, imagine what we could do.” Crawford says this is all due to positive community relations and the welcoming atmosphere the Centre conveys.

Crawford pointed out that Centre 454 draws in a group that are mostly housed, albeit vulnerably. “Folks just come here to spend their time… they’ve gone from being in deep crisis to managing the best they can with what they have,” she said. “The whole area lends itself to a calmer environment than Murray, [the previous location].”

Individuals living in unstable housing conditions often struggle to find places to relax and spend their time. Crawford described experiences that several residents had shared with her. They felt that everywhere they went in the city, they were asked to leave. If they looked homeless or stood out, they were pushed away.

“Having this space — with a picnic table and grass where they can just sit and feel the sun on their face— to know that they are wanted here, that means more than anything to them. They wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that,” she said. The guests call Centre 454 their “living room,” because it is where they feel like they belong. “If you’re in a rooming house and all you have is a cot and a hot plate… you need somewhere to spend your time,” said Crawford.

Ottawa city councillor Mathieu Fleury of the Rideau-Vanier area also dealt with apprehension that surfaced from the community during the Centre’s move in 2012. “Initially there were huge concerns… but I think overall now everyone sees that it was the right move,” he said. “Centre 454 has been a good addition to the Anglican Church. They did things properly in consultation with the community.”

Councillor Fleury highlighted the distinct lack of complaints from the community. A Sandy Hill committee had initially planned to meet quarterly to mitigate the impacts of the move and discuss conflicts, “but it got to a point where no identifiable issues were linked to Centre 454,” he said. “The group positively dismantled itself because of that.”

In all, Councillor Fleury is pleased with how well Centre 454 has integrated back into the Sandy Hill community. “We put the right measures in place and they have proven to work well… and that’s what’s important about community engagement.”

Centre 454’s community is growing just as quickly as the garden in its front courtyard. The Centre’s positive contributions to the Sandy Hill area are a testament to the value of a diverse and mutually supportive community.

To learn more about Centre 454 and how you can get involved, you can visit their website at: www.centre454.ca