Chaplain Tom Donohue’s door is always open at the Ottawa Mission. Photo by Tristan Bronca

Ottawa Mission turns no one away during deep freeze

By  Tristan Bronca, Youth Speak News
  • February 8, 2013

Updated 02/14/13

OTTAWA - An end of January deep freeze saw hundreds of people caught out in the cold in Ottawa as temperatures dropped as low as -30C. The downtown Ottawa Mission braced itself for a surge in occupancy as men came in off the streets looking for a hot meal, a warm bed or a few extra layers of clothing.

But some of the men were looking for something more, said chaplain Tom Donohue. They were looking for something to rely on.

That week, the front desk staff estimated 30 per cent of the men staying in the shelter were age 25 or younger. But “the population is always changing,” Shirley Roy, the Mission’s spokesperson, said. For many of these men, this constant change characterizes their lifestyle.

Different occupants fill the 235 beds each day. Some come back. It’s not surprising then that they find some comfort in one tiny certainty: an open door to Donohue’s office.

A lot of times, they won’t say a word to Donohue. They’ll just stick their heads in, as if to make sure he’s still there.

“This is honestly, probably, the only consistent thing they’ve had in their life,” Donohue said, “which is sad.”

The rigid routine that makes up each day at the Mission can be a good thing but, somewhat paradoxically, it only remains that way as long as the men here have the choice to leave. When the dead cold sets in, that choice quickly disappears.

“This time of year is really tough,” Donohue said.

In the summer months they can leave, stay outside or pitch a tent. In the winter though, at least during the night, they’re confined to the sterile smelling lounge and dorms or the cold brick walls of the dining room.

“You can feel the stress,” he said. “There is no place for privacy. You’re told when to get up in the morning, you’re told when to eat, you’re told when to go to bed at night. It’s like being at home when you’re a kid.”

Men and women who rely on the shelter for lunch have to eat quickly, freeing up one of the 95 seats to the several hundred other patrons. There is only a one-hour window for each meal.
But the Mission never turns anyone away. When there were more people than there were beds in late January, some slept on mats in the lounge.

This is the reality when you have more than 200 men in a shelter. What bothers Donohue most is seeing a dozen young people sitting in the lounge, looking “comfortable,” he said after a deliberate pause.

While Donohue claims that 99 per cent of his role requires nothing more than a non-judgmental ear, he has spoken out against this wilful inertia. Donohue had been meeting with one 27-year-old for about two years when he eventually told him he would need to get his act together or he would still be there when he was 50. “He was livid,” he said. The man is the same age as Donohue’s son.

Donohue had many sad stories to tell but somehow his positivity never wavered. A wide smile was plastered across his face and an infectious laugh followed many of his own comments..

“I had a kid — maybe 23, 24 — walk into my office one morning and he sat down there where you’re sitting right now and he said to me: ‘I want this Jesus thing. I see those people in your chapel and I want that.’ He didn’t know what he was asking for, but he sensed something.”

During his daily, non-denominational service, Donohue has watched a small community come together, clinging to this same “sense of something” like a cloud in this transient atmosphere.

“A bad day is 40 people,” he said. “I’ve got churches who would love to have my congregation. Mind you, they wouldn’t want my collection.”

(Bronca, 21, is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University.)


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