- Isaac’s experience with depression, substance use, and sleeping in a shelter is firsthand knowledge he brings as a street outreach worker at Ottawa’s Operation Come Home, where he works to ensure youth struggling with homelessness or addiction know where they can find support.
- For United Way partners like Operation Come Home, hiring frontline staff with lived experience—like Isaac—has meant creating trauma-informed resources to take proper care of them: helping prevent burnout and empower them to feel capable and supported in their work.
- United Way believes in getting to youth early: whether it’s through supporting kids before they step into school with programs that improve early-childhood development, giving students the tools they need to stay in school and graduate, meeting youth where they’re at to prevent chronic homelessness, or leading initiatives like project step, which provides young people and their families access to support, treatment, education, and prevention of harms related to substance use.
Isaac knows firsthand what it’s like to be a young person struggling with substance use.
When he was a teenager, Isaac experienced mental illness. For a time, he stayed in Ottawa’s young men’s shelter. It was hard for him, being one of the youngest people there. Struggling with depression, Isaac turned to substances to deal with the pain. When the pandemic hit, the challenges he faced escalated, and his struggles only got harder.
Isaac is not alone: The number of young people in Ottawa reporting poor or fair mental health doubled from 2019 to 2021. In 2020, 91 per cent of frontline providers serving homeless youth reported youth had experienced a significant increase in feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.
Fortunately, Isaac had enough of a support system in his life to get help. Now, he’s turned that experience and knowledge into a way of helping others.
As a street outreach worker at Operation Come Home, Isaac works on the front lines. His team travels around Ottawa neighbourhoods looking out for youth who are vulnerable or alone. They bring backpacks and wagons full of food, water, socks, shoes, and other basic needs, and let youth struggling with homelessness or addiction know where they can find support. When not out on the streets, Isaac works at the drop-in centre, where youth can come in for meals and learn more about counselling, employment, and education programs.
Reaching young people where they’re at is important. Letting them know help available is essential.
Supporting people with lived experiences
John Heckbert, Executive Director at Operation Come Home, recognizes the importance of having young people like Isaac work with at-risk youth.
Not only does Isaac’s experience build trust with the young people he interacts with, but it also helps Operation Come Home understand what barriers clients face in getting the help they need.
Bridging the gap with youth
When Isaac meets young people on the street, he can relate. This can make a world of a difference for those who may be coming from situations where trust with others has been broken. Some youth may be leaving abusive families, foster care, or experiencing trauma from their home country, without essential support. A connection with someone trustworthy is essential to getting them into stable housing and accessing job opportunities and health resources.
Employees like Isaac offer valuable firsthand knowledge, but it doesn’t make them immune to the emotional impact or trauma of helping youth who are in the same situation they once were.
Isaac’s empathy and understanding are assets in his role, but they can also make him vulnerable.
John understands this when he says, “as their boss, you have to make sure you take proper care of them as your employees.”
“If they’ve experienced some serious things, they can feel worse when they’re exposed to those memories on someone else’s’ behalf,” he adds. “They can carry that, and it can weigh on them.”
With support from United Way and the Government of Canada’s Community Services Recovery Fund, Operation Come Home is increasing their long-term capacity to support employees with lived experience through the creation of a guide for people managers. This resource will be available to share with other community agencies so others can benefit from what Operation Come Home learns during the creation process.
According to Ottawa Public Health’s recently released local analysis of the 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), drug use starts early for many young people. Grade seven and eight students were just as likely to report non-medical opioid use as those in grades nine to 12 (10 per cent).
“The more dangerous it is, the more likely people are to get hurt, or disabled, or even die. If these things happen, there isn’t an opportunity to change,” says Isaac.
That’s why United Way believes in getting to youth early: whether it’s through supporting kids before they step into school with programs that improve early-childhood development, giving students the tools they need to stay in school and graduate, meeting youth where they’re at to prevent chronic homelessness, or leading initiatives like project step, which provides young people and their families access to support, treatment, education, and prevention of harms related to substance use.
“Our work is focused on youth who’ve got very significant challenges with substance use. Some of them deal with pretty serious addictions or mental health challenges, and they self-identify that they want to reduce their use or change the circumstances of their life,” says John.
Strengthening community services
As we emerge from what we hope will have been the worst of the pandemic, the demand for social services continues to grow across our region. Many are turning to an already strained community sector, which continues to face significant challenges such as labour shortages, rising inflation, and operational costs that are pushing staff and volunteers to their breaking points.
Continued support from our generous donors and partners will help us seize upon the moment of innovation and transformation that took place during the pandemic. This will help build the resiliency of the community services sector for years to come, and United Way is well positioned to lead this work.
Working alone is not an option. As it has been since before the pandemic started, our work is grounded in the principles of collaboration, partnerships, and innovation to address the greatest needs and have the greatest impact for the people who need us most.
Isaac shares this understanding, stating: “We are all a community. When we lift the people in the community up that are on the lowest rung, who need the most basic of their needs met, then everyone gets lifted up at the same time.”