The most important piece in someone’s life is community… it should be a human right, but I think we’ve forgotten about it. – Richard LeBlanc
When you go looking for causes to support, it’s easy to fall for the miracle stories where big problems get fixed and lives are turned around. But beyond the glossy fundraising campaigns, there are people on the ground who know there are great rewards in the quieter, day-to-day kind of changes. It might be somebody starting to smile again or playing a game of crib and forgetting about their problems for a while. At Centre 507, a drop in that operates out of Centretown United Church, it’s these small steps towards feeling better and enjoying life that matter most.
I met up with Richard LeBlanc, Centre 507’s Executive Director to learn more about the Centre, the importance of community and how they found a way to flourish in the wake of last year’s funding cuts.
In the most basic terms Centre 507 is a social service agency. As you might expect, they serve meals and provide resources like computer access, haircuts, and clothing. They also have social workers onsite to connect people with social service supports outside the Centre, such as housing, mental health and addictions treatment. The Centre serves 150 people each day and often up to 200 on Sundays when they’re the only place in the city to access social services. It adds up to about 45,000 unique visits a year.
It’s about reminding people that you are more than what you find yourself in.
What makes the Centre stand apart, though, is its fervent belief in the importance of community and its commitment to provide a safe space to cultivate and enjoy it. “The most important piece in someone’s life is community,” says Richard. “I think everyone in Ottawa, regardless of where you live or who you are, would agree that if you’re addicted to something, if you have mental health issues, if you use drugs, regardless of your situation, everyone deserves community. That’s our focus. I don’t know of anyone who can sit in a room by themselves and be happy. It should be a human right but I think we’ve forgotten about it.”
One of the ways they build this community is by running an active recreation program which includes everything from film screenings and cribbage tournaments to museum visits and shows at the Gladstone Theatre. For those on a limited income, it’s a chance to enjoy activities not otherwise affordable and for those who are lonely, it’s a chance to be with people and make friends.
Richard says it goes even further. “What we do is remind people that they’re real people. You’re not a crack head, you’re not an alcoholic, you’re not a schizophrenic, and you’re not a depressive. You’re Joe the music fan, the sports fan, the art fan. You take someone to a ‘67s game. It’s not about killing time. It’s about reminding people that you are more than what you find yourself in.”
At Centre 507, community is a lot more than a buzzword. It’s a vision that shapes everything they do. Where accessing social services is often about waiting in line and asking for things, at 507, everyone that walks in the door is invited to participate in everything that goes on. “When you come here it’s not just a handout, you are going to be part of something,” Richard explains. “You can help us clean you can help us cook, you can volunteer to do anything with us. Communities are everybody working together towards something. That’s really what we strive for.” Participants are even invited to sit on the Centre’s board, vote at the Centre’s AGM and voice their opinions on the nitty-gritty issues of budgets and bylaws.
In social services, we’re so focused on trying to fix something. Sometimes in everyone’s lives, things don’t get fixed but they can still enjoy life even if they never fix it.
The community-centered model goes a long way in creating a safe and positive environment. When people feel they’re part of something, it gives way to a respect that is paid forward. If you’re expecting a loud, rowdy atmosphere you won’t find it here. As Richard and I talked over soup, a thoughtful man at our table joked that there’s more decorum at 507 than in the House of Commons during question period.
I ask Richard what bothers him most about the public image of drop-in centers. “I think we’ve typecast who comes to a drop-in centre,” he says. “Everybody who comes here, people assume are a certain something. What people need to understand is there’s no label for people who come here. We’ve had participants with paintings in the national gallery, ex-University of Ottawa professors have been participants here. I can guarantee that three cars parked on Argyle St. are people that are in here right now. Do we have someone who may have nowhere to live? Yeah. It’s not just for poor guys struggling with homelessness or addicted to whatever. It’s just not one of those places.”
While the supports are available to those who want to make a change Richard is clear that the choice is entirely up to each individual. “In social services, we’re so focused on trying to fix something. Sometimes in everyone’s lives, things don’t get fixed but they can still enjoy life even if they never fix it,” he says. It seems so simple this idea of accepting people as they are, but it was still surprising to hear it stated so plainly, “At 507, you are a person. We don’t turn anyone away. You can have three million dollars in the bank and need a community that’s safe. You’re welcome here.”
Lessons learned the hard way
Richard tells me how funding priorities tend to shift according to new trendy models and ideas in social work. So when the housing-first model emerged as the priority du jour, 507 was one of the local agencies who lost funding simply because their work didn’t fall in line with that approach. At 507 the cuts resulted in the loss of three programs and five staff positions. “I said in the Ottawa Citizen article that we were at risk of closing” Richard says looking back. “We didn’t know who we were, we didn’t know what we were doing and we had just lost about a half million dollars.”
The loss gave way to some much needed soul-searching. “It just turned into so much of a positive that it just feels like now we’re blooming,” he says. Before the cuts, 507 was running programs that served people who didn’t use the drop in because the city asked them and it brought good funding in. It wasn’t until that funding was cut off that they had a chance to step back and decided to ground everything in running a great drop-in. “In a lot of ways it really changed our philosophy and really made us remember who we are and what’s important. Before we were running around like crazy trying to help everybody everywhere,” Richard says.
In the wake of the cuts, the difference has been dramatic. One big change is the turn toward more nutritious food. Where in the past the Centre and many like it would pour eighty cans of soup into a big pot and warm it up, these days they make soups from scratch and offer salads and vegetarian options at each meal. There’s even a garden project out front that provides salads in the summer months. An anonymous donation of $5,000 covered a dishwasher so they could get away from serving in styrofoam and make the space feel more like home. Focusing on the drop-in has also allowed them to run an effective volunteer program and triple their recreation programs. And this is just the start.
“Right now, I always say we’re working towards being the best day program in the city” Richard says.
Whether you’ve got a big room to paint or just need to make it through another day, one thing is for sure: having a community around you can make all the difference.
How to get involved
While the Centre appreciates donations Richard’s an avid believer in people getting to know the groups they support, choosing ones that resonate with them and trying to go beyond simply sending a cheque. Though he recognizes that with “many agencies, and so many foundations, it’s a competition for money,” he’s also quick to note that there’s lots of ways to be involved. “We’re just like any business. We need accounting skills, human resource skills and communication skills too so come be part of something, and give of your time. That’s what makes us different. We don’t just want your cheque book.”
It can even be something as simple as buying an extra bag of apples or can of coffee for the Centre when you see them on sale or coming in on Sunday afternoons. If you’re interested in getting involved the Centre welcomes people to get in touch by email, phone or even dropping in for a coffee. “There’s no barriers here. Whether you’re a participant or a community member, you have access to us,” Richard says.
Centre 507’s vision of community is best captured in an anecdote about painting the Centre one Saturday. “We had volunteers from Dulux paint come in and we had eight people from Dulux paint who paid for the paint, four participants showed up to help us paint, three staff, two board members – one who lives in Centretown. We had everything covered there, the whole community, the people that work here, the people that play here, the people who work around the corner. It was a true community response to a problem – a shabby looking centre.” Whether you’ve got a big room to paint or just need to make it through another day, one thing is for sure; having a community around you can make all the difference.
To learn more about Centre 507, visit their website.