By Charlie Senack
Since the fall, Tom Brown Arena has been helping those who live on the streets of Ottawa. With it now operating as a daily respite centre, the homeless in the community have a place to go and get warm, grab a quick meal and shower.
It was in November when the ice was melted and tables and chairs were hauled onto the rink surface at 141 Bayview Station Rd. With the colder weather arriving and fewer places for people to go due to COVID-19 restrictions, the city saw a need and wanted to act fast.
“An arena is an ideal location for this type of service just because it has a decent amount of space with the slab and we can physically distance people properly,” said Christina May, one of two operation leads for the city’s winter respite centres.
“It’s a good opportunity for people to come in and get warm and get access to a meal,” she added. “It’s also a great space because there are multiple showers and washrooms.”
In late January, when Ottawa’s four privately run shelters stopped taking new admissions because of COVID-19 outbreaks, the Tom Brown Respite Centre was transformed into a temporary overnight facility.
May says the transformation was done quickly and only took six hours to wheel in cots and collect blankets.
“That was not something we anticipated originally for the space to be used as, however there was a need and it happened very quickly,” she said. “In six hours, the site was converted from daytime respite to an overnight temporary physical distancing centre.”
A client who stayed overnight at the facility on Feb. 10 tested positive for COVID-19, but thanks to all the health and safety precautions that were in place, the centre was able to remain open.
The centre ran as an overnight facility for 13 days with over 600 people staying with them during that time. Their last night was the busiest with 78 people, over 20 of whom were female. Those who now need a bed to sleep in are referred to the Nicholas Street physical distancing shelter, which served as a youth hostel prior to the pandemic.
Tom Brown has also collected winter clothing and toiletries to hand out to the clients. Donations have come from a number of individuals and businesses in the community including Giant Tiger, which recently held a campaign with the goal of raising $2,500 to purchase new winter clothing.
The centre has now been transformed back into a daily respite centre and the demand continues to grow. Since early November, they have had 45,000 service interactions, more than any other respite centre in Ottawa.
Much of the work they do is also to help clients access services. Ontario Works is now on site to help with referrals, a resource that was sometimes difficult for those living on the streets to access.
“We call it a respite centre but our clients have dubbed it ‘the respect centre’ and we take so much pride in knowing that’s how they feel,” said May.
The respite centres were initially set up to help those living on the streets during the winter months but since they have been so successful, May hopes they will continue to operate while the need is there.
That was a sentiment Kitchissippi ward Councillor Jeff Leiper echoed in a previous interview with the Kitchissippi Times. He too praised the work that has been done to help these people and said the easy access to services was welcomed.
“The Tom Brown Respite Centre has been well-used since it first opened and it’s a key investment I’m really pleased to see in our neighborhood,” stated Leiper. “Not only that, it’s been a place where people are able to go for resources, which is really good. I hope to see it stay open until this pandemic is over. I also hope that the work we are doing now to help the vulnerable in our communities continues, and we are able to still provide this same level of service in a better capacity after COVID.”
For the staff who also run the Tom Brown Arena, these aren’t roles they could have ever expected to step into when the pandemic began.
Prior to March 2020, May was working at the McNabb Community Centre where she facilitated programs such as day camps and gymnastic lessons — all activities that have been halted due to COVID-19 restrictions.
When most city facilities were shut down, May then supported the Human Needs Task Force for the first few months of the pandemic before landing in her current role in the summer.
The majority of staff working at the city’s three respite centres have been reassigned from roles in the recreation, culture and facilities services department at the city.
“For us, this was not our field of work; we were running community centres, museums, or arenas,” said May. “But for us it has been inspiring and insightful, and also really powerful for the staff that have worked here. The overwhelming support from the community and surrounding neighbourhoods has made it such an incredible experience to be a part of.”
May says she doesn’t know how long the Tom Brown Arena will continue to operate as a respite centre and admits she will be sad when this chapter in her career is over. While she never expected her career would take this direction, she’s glad it did.
“I still pinch myself every day,” May said. “We do understand the impact (of this facility) and it continues to get support and numbers in clients, so we do anticipate that it is going to extend for a long duration. The exact timeframe, I’m not fully sure.”