To raise awareness and money for its new “Self Matters” program, a small group of volunteers and organizers from Centretown’s Operation Come Home slept outside on Jan. 25, one of this winter’s coldest nights so far.
Operation Come Home is a charity that runs events and programs to help homeless youth find shelter and meaningful work in Ottawa.
During the 10th annual “24 Hours of Homelessness” event, participants with thick gloves and heavy coats collected donations between Rideau Street’s Scotiabank branch – which donated $5,000 to the cause –and the Highlander Pub.
“I blame myself for choosing the -40 wind-chill night,” laughed Chez 106 host Eric Bollman, also known as Eric the Intern, rubbing his hands together.
This was Bollman’s ninth year working with OCH. During the week leading up to the event, he advertised 24 Hours of Homelessness over the radio and posted updates on Chez 106’s Twitter page. Bollman said that the event is more about raising awareness than money.
“After tomorrow afternoon I get to go home and put on a fire and soak in a warm bath,” he said. “A lot of the kids who have to stay out overnight, they don’t get to do that. They get to do this all over again. That’s what we want to get people to realize.”.
Although the event is largely about spreading awareness, that hasn’t stopped OCH from raising more than $10,000 in other years.
This year, Operation Come Home is raising money to keep its new Self Matters program alive. The program, which relies on private donations to help youth turn their lives around, only has enough funding to run for one more eight-week rotation.
“We’re really relying on the donations from tonight to keep it running for the long term,” said Lynda Franc, OCH’s co-manager of operations.
During a Self Matters rotation, four men or women under the age of 30 learn fundamental skills for working in the cosmetics industry. They spend the eight weeks learning aesthetics skills such as waxing or manicures as well as hairstyling and makeup artistry.
For some of Ottawa’s homeless young adults, Self Matters could be a step towards a more stable future. Participants can earn a high school credit through the program, and each rotation includes a field trip to one of the city’s aesthetics schools, such as the Ottawa Academy on Ogilvie Road.
“It’s not just about learning how to apply makeup,” says Ashley Mathieu, a member of OCH’s support staff. “It’s about the feeling you get whenever you leave the program at the end of the three hours, feeling great about yourself, feeling confident.”
Mathieu teaches the program’s two-week hairstyling section and helps run the other six weeks. Usually this means that the trainers demonstrate the day’s lessons on her, and then students practise on each other.
One of the men who volunteered for the 24 Hours of Homelessness fundraiser was 20- year-old Corey Illings from Hawkesbury, about 100 km east of Ottawa. Two years ago, he was spending almost every night outside. He slept in parking garages in Ottawa, and before that, in ATM lobbies or even under park benches in Hawkesbury.
“There were a couple of nights where it was just really freezing,” he said during the 24-hour event, wearing giant headphones to keep his ears warm. “I’d wake up and there’d be a small layer of snow on me.”
When he was 18, Illings became involved with Operation Come Home. He took part in a program similar to Self Matters, which helped him learn job skills such as interview etiquette and how to write a good resumé.
Today, Illings is studying general arts and sciences in Algonquin College. Next year, he plans to switch to child and youth services. He hopes to eventually become involved in programs similar to the ones that helped him.
“You can adapt yourself to (living outside) but that’s really hard to do,” he says. “You kind of lose yourself.”
Operation Come Home hasn’t finished calculating how much it raised from the 24–hour event and preceding weeks, but the first tallies indicate that it was around $7,000, enough to support at least one more Self Matters rotation. When this rotation is complete, Mathieu says OCH will review the program financially.