Putting a Face on Homelessness
A campaign to put a face on homelessness in Ottawa has drawn increasing attention since its launch a year ago. Ask Me Ottawa tells the stories of people who work or volunteer to end homelessness or who have been homeless. The stories are posted on the Ask Me Ottawa website and shared through social media.
Ask Me Ottawa is an initiative of the Alliance to End Homelessness, a non-profit whose member organizations provide housing services and supports. The aim is to get people talking about homelessness, to break down stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why, and to encourage people to get involved.
Derek Antoine and Darcy Knoll, Ask Me Ottawa's volunteer co-chairs, are both communications specialists who have been involved in social sector and non-profit work. They and other volunteers collect the stories, drawing on the experiences of individuals who work, volunteer or have been homeless and are trying to make a difference.
"They're telling their stories, trying to get people to really understand what homelessness is about," explains Antoine. "We're also trying to profile people who you wouldn't think would be involved-there are all kinds of people who are outside of the traditional sector who are trying to make a difference. So we're trying to showcase that, to show that no matter what walk of life you come from, you can do something about it."
Homelessness advocate Terrie Meehan is one of the people featured on the Ask Me Ottawa site. Photo: Derek Antoine (courtesy Ask Me Ottawa).
"We want to get people involved," adds Antoine. "We want them to be inspired by the stories that they're reading and then take action afterwards."
Among the individuals profiled on the site so far are Tom Donohue, Chaplain at the Ottawa Mission, who writes about the courage of the people he meets; Sonia Vargas, a Cornerstone Housing for Women resident who is getting back on her feet after moving to Canada from Peru; and Carleton University students Elisa Zucconi and Meagan Hillier, who created a fundraising event for the housing and support agency Options Bytown.
"I can do that!"
One of the stories features homelessness advocate Terrie Meehan, who has had to deal with poverty and homelessness herself. Antoine wrote up Meehan's story for Ask Me Ottawa after meeting her when they were on an Alliance to End Homelessness committee together.
Antoine writes: "When asked how she got her start in advocacy, she offers a joke. She says that she started going to the Citizen's Advisory Committee meetings (a predecessor of the Municipal Advisory Committee) for free babysitting but 'they wanted me to be opinionated and I thought 'I can do that!'' From there, she found her voice and continued to volunteer on multiple committees in Ottawa and elsewhere standing up for the homeless population."
Meehan says that program and policy makers need to hear from the people who use their programs.
The stories illustrate the range of people who can be affected by homelessness. Antoine's own story on the site refers to his meeting a woman who became homeless but is now going through law school. "A lot of people tend to think of homelessness as something that's chronic, that if you're homeless, then that's where you are," observes Antoine. "Then you start to realize the potential of people; they don't choose to be homeless. With support, someone believing in them, they can do great things."
Ask Me Ottawa began after Antoine became involved with the Alliance to End Homelessness and gathered several communications professionals together to develop a campaign to engage people. "We sat down and tried to compile how many people are actively involved already in trying to make a difference-volunteers, staff, board members; we discovered about 9,500 people in the city, as a conservative number. We started looking at some of the stories, and we thought there's nothing more inspiring than understanding why someone is volunteering or why someone is trying to make a difference. Every story is so unique and so interesting. They inspire other people to get involved and talk about their work."
Lynne Browne, the Alliance to End Homelessness's executive director, explains that Ask Me Ottawa connects people within the community working to end homelessness, as well people outside it. "We decided that we would harness the power of the thousands and thousands of volunteers from the community who are working to end homelessness already and link them up with a campaign that allows them to share their stories and experiences with the broader community," says Browne. The idea is also that the more people talk about homelessness, the more they will engage decision-makers. The campaign also gives a voice to people who have important experiences to share, face-to-face as well as online. People involved in the sector can wear "Ask Me" buttons that encourage others to enquire about what they do.
Browne says the campaign has been successful. "It really captures people's imagination. We've had quite a bit of interest in the campaign from people we wouldn't normally be in touch with." Many people have signed up to follow Ask Me Ottawa on Twitter and Facebook, and others have provided positive comments by email or on the website. This year, Ask Me Ottawa received the Options Bytown Media Award for innovative use of new media.
As well as supporting Ask Me Ottawa through Facebook and Twitter, people can read and share the stories, which are posted once every week or two on the website. Because Ask Me Ottawa is volunteer-run, it welcomes contributions to help pay for the website or materials. People can also offer help to the Alliance to End Homelessness's member agencies, which are listed on the Alliance's website. As Ask Me Ottawa demonstrates, individual efforts can make a big difference in people's lives.
Ask Me Ottawa website (http://askmeottawa.ca/); Facebook (www.facebook.com/askmeottawa); Twitter (www.twitter.com/askmeottawa); Alliance to End Homelessness website (http://www.endhomelessnessottawa.ca/).
Denise Deby works and writes on local and international social and environmental issues."