Our final speaker series session of 2023 was held via Zoom on the evening of November 29th. We were excited to welcome Peter Tilley as our guest to talk with us about The Ottawa Mission, its history, its role and the ongoing challenges that it and our community face. Given the housing and opioid crisis we are experiencing today, Peter’s presentation could not have been more timely.
Peter is the current CEO of The Ottawa Mission, having joined them in June 2013. Before this, he had spent 14 years as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Food Bank and has been a part-time professor at Algonquin College. Apart from this, Peter volunteers on community boards, including Ottawa Public Health, the Chair of the Ottawa Inner City Health and a Board member of the Alliance To End Homelessness and Soldiers Helping Soldiers as well as being a volunteer at Parkdale United Church. He is far more than an administrator, however, he takes the time to speak to shelter guests, lending them a friendly ear, and calling them by their first names.
Peter told us that there is a big safe in the basement of The Mission that contains a lot of their archives, including many old photos and ledgers. From these, he has been able to piece together the following history of The Ottawa Mission.
The Ottawa Mission can trace its origin to September 20, 1906 when a public meeting was held to discuss opening a shelter for homeless men camped along the Ottawa River. By January 1907, a shelter, The Union Mission for Men, had opened on George Street, moving to its current location on Waller Street in 1912. Peter provided some general context for the opening of the shelter in 1907, reminding us that at that date Canada had a population of 6.5 million of which over 50 % were rural, women and Indigenous people were not allowed to vote, life expectancy was 50 years and the population of Ottawa stood at 110,000. The first Superintendent of The Union Mission, James Joab, established its cornerstone principle by declaring that “No man would ever be turned away the first night they came to The Mission”.
Peter explained that the main focus of The Mission in those early days was “Three Hots and a Cot” (3 meals & a bed), which is still a key component of their services today. Peter shared a photo of the time, showing that the men were in suits with ties and their hats on their laps. Meals were then 10 cents, though you could get a voucher for a free meal. One of the first great challenges they faced was providing service to returning veterans of the First World War, many of whom were suffering from what was then called “shell shock” and what we now know as PTSD, broken men needing help.
On October 29, 1929, the “Roaring 20s” came to a “Roaring Halt” with the crash of the New York Stock Market and the resulting disruption of the world’s economies. Thousands of people lost their jobs and so had no income. This was reflected in the number of meals served by The Mission: in 1929, 73,000 but in 1932, 425,662. This was a time of constant struggle for the staff, with many appeals to the public, just to keep the doors open and stay true to their vow that no one would be turned away. Things were very basic, but they got through it.
Following the Second World War The Mission found that alcoholism was rampant among returning veterans suffering from PTSD. The Mission served as a refuge for those men who could only deal with the brutality of what they had experienced through a cycle of drink and sleep, before they passed on. Peter said that The Mission offered “Soap, Soup and Salvation”.
Canada experienced an economic boon from the 1950s through the 1970s, and The Mission continued to offer its services. It still supported those suffering with alcoholism, but found it was also providing a place for those who just needed a meal and a bed, and in some cases, Americans who had come north to avoid the draft for the war in Vietnam. By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, men dealing with drug addiction became a new population needing support.
Peter explained that by the mid-1980s the boom had ended and governments entered a period of cut-backs and downloading of services that had effects throughout the community. In particular, the Ontario government closed facilities such as Rideau Regional, that cared for individuals living with a variety of cognitive and emotional impairments, forcing many into the community without support. Peter explained that, under the leadership of Diane Morrison, the first female Director of The Mission, they grew by 60 beds in the mid-1990s to meet this new need.
The Pandemic hit The Mission hard. They transitioned some of their services, such as addiction and mental health counselling from in-person to virtual, handed out take-our meals to the community through their loading dock, delivered meals to others in the city through a food truck. Peter said that the staff team worked with little break and no vacation through the first 18 months of the pandemic to ensure that they continued to provide their services. The major projects they had planned were placed on hold and are only now being revived as the heaviest effects of the pandemic wane.
Peter shared a number of photos of The Ottawa Mission as it looks today, including images of the kitchen, dining hall, bedrooms, showers and one of the two apartment buildings they own and run as mixed-market rental buildings. The Ottawa Mission now has its own in-house maintenance team that takes care of its buildings, including the former Albert Inn, that is now the home for their Addiction Program and the former Rideau Bakery, which runs their Food Services training program.
Peter wrapped up his fantastic presentation by discussing the range of services now offered by The Ottawa Mission and the challenges they face. Today The Ottawa Mission offers a wide range of services. Although its overnight and addiction programs remain restricted to men, for reasons of safety, all of its other services are open to both men and women. These include: primary health care, mental health care, dental care, foot care, a wide range of education, job readiness and job training programs, housing support and a food truck program among others. Today, as well, the demand for these services is growing. With the opioid crisis, the housing shortage, the rapid rise in price of food and other necessities and the influx of refugees there is even greater pressure on The Mission and there staff than ever before.
The Ottawa Mission is “ALWAYS OPEN, NEVER CLOSED”, 24 / 7 every day of the year, for over 115 years, with over 1,000,000 hours of service to the most vulnerable in our community.
Its work must continue but for that to happen, they need your help. Only 25% of their funding comes from governments, the rest comes directly from members of the community. To volunteer or donate, please see The Ottawa Mission website.
To watch Peter’s full presentation, please see The Ottawa Mission: Supporting Our City's Most Vulnerable on the HSO YouTube channel.