By Maureen McEwan
The second annual Coldest Night of the Year Ottawa Westboro event looks like it will surpass last year’s, despite going virtual due to COVID-19.
Coldest Night of the Year (CNOY) is a national, annual winter walk to “raise money for charities serving people experiencing homelessness, hurt, and hunger” that was first launched in 2011, according to the event website. In the last decade, over $33.5 million has been raised in 149 communities across Canada.
Local nonprofit Cornerstone Housing for Women hosted Kitchissippi’s first CNOY last year to raise money for, and awareness about, women’s housing in Ottawa. 103 walkers participated in 13 teams.
This year’s event is set for Feb. 20. On Cornerstone’s CNOY page, there were 140 walkers registered in 34 teams and already $18,865 raised (75 per cent of the $25,000 goal) by noon on Jan. 27.
“It really is a perfect event during COVID[-19] because you can go with your household,” said Amber Bramer, resource development manager at Cornerstone Housing for Women. “You can sign up your team; you can go with your household and you can go on those two or five kilometre walks in the Westboro BIA to support Cornerstone.”
Cornerstone Housing for Women provides “emergency shelter and safe affordable permanent housing” for women at multiple locations across the city, its website states. The organization houses nearly 200 women per day.
In 2018, a supportive housing residence was opened on Princeton Avenue in Westboro offering housing to 42 women.
“This event was really appealing to us because it helped to bring the community together to just reflect on the importance of housing,” said Bramer on the first CNOY in 2020. “And I think when you get to see and feel the bitter coldness of Ottawa that we know, and can think about the fact that 1,000 women in our city become homeless every year, it can be extremely impactful to community members to see how important housing is, and how important shelter services are to the women in the city.”
“Because we were new to the Westboro area, it was a great opportunity for Cornerstone to really get into the Westboro community,” Bramer added.
Ottawa is facing overlapping crises, Bramer said — including the ongoing housing crisis in Ottawa, increased violence against women, the opioid crisis and the pandemic — making the last 12 months very difficult for women in the city.
At the O’Connor Street shelter, Bramer said Cornerstone was supporting 61 women, but there wasn’t a lot of space in the older building for COVID-19 physical distancing. They also had to turn many women away because there weren’t enough spaces available.
In response, Cornerstone opened a new, temporary physically-distanced centre in December, in partnership with the City of Ottawa and Shepherds of Good Hope, to ensure services could continue.
“Cornerstone runs the shelter and we now are supporting around 100 women, and that’s expected to go up to 120. So double the amount of women we were serving,” Bramer said on the new space. “So there’s a huge housing crisis, I think, and a huge need for a safe space for women, a womens’ only shelter in the city.”
COVID-19 has changed the CNOY Ottawa Westboro event in different ways. There is no registration fee this year — teams are just asked to fundraise.
Bramer said the average team size is less than five people, a noticeable difference compared to last year’s higher average, which shows that participants are creating smaller household teams to respect pandemic restrictions. For safety, there is also a “touchless drop off point” for team captains to pick up CNOY swag and any event materials.
And there are no CNOY volunteers. Last year, 61 people helped with registration and route coordination at the All Saints’ Church “start and stop location,” and collaborated with the Westboro BIA and other community partners. Bramer encourages those individuals to participate once again if they can.
“We’re hoping those volunteers come out and walk for us [or] help spread the word if they can’t afford to support us monetarily,” she said.
So while this year will be a different walk, Bramer said it is important to remember the solidarity behind it.
“We’re all kind of in this together and [this] is a great activity in the cold that we can all go out and do,” she said.
To learn more about CNOY Ottawa Westboro, visit cnoy.org or follow Cornerstone Housing for Women on social media.