Meet Natalie, a social worker and the Manager of Operations at Operation Come HomeNatalie is the hugely energetic and passionate force that leads Operation Come Home’s street outreach team. We met for an interview and photos at OCH’s new location at 150 Gloucester, where Natalie showed off some of the beautiful jewellery created by street youth in the BeadWorks storefront. Read on to find out more about Natalie’s life in Ottawa, her experiences at Operation Come Home, and her thoughts on the challenges faced by homeless youth in Ottawa.

I am the Manager of Operations at Operation Come Home.  I’ve been here for almost five years. I started out as a youth worker in the Education program and I’ve worked my way up to Manager of Operations. I went to Algonquin College’s Social Service Worker program, so I’m a Registered Social Service Worker.

My interests – well, I love my family and my daughter. I like the outdoors, going to the cottage, anything to do with water, water sports. Outdoor stuff. I like photography. Not that I’m good at it, but I do like a nice picture.

Are you from Ottawa?

Yes, I’m from Ottawa. I’m from outside of Ottawa, though. I grew up in Richmond, and I lived with my mom and my brother in Bells Corners for the rest of my high school and pre-college years. I actually just bought a house in Richmond – I want my daughter to grow up there. It’s a small, not-too-busy town.

What drew you to social work? 

Well, even when I was in high school and did co-op placements I worked with disadvantaged people. I always liked working with kids. First I was a personal support worker, and I worked in paediatrics. It was really sad, too sad. I worked with two boys with muscular dystrophy. One has since passed away, but I still work with his brother. I’m still there any time they need me.

I was able to get a job in a youth foster home working as a relief parent. I worked with disadvantaged and abused children, children with ADHD and conduct disorders. It was a really great experience, and I wanted to work more with kids. It wasn’t full-time employment though, so I went to work in a place in Arden, Ontario called Arden Court. It was a 31-bed residential treatment centre with a mix of male and female closed-custody and open-custody beds. It was a good experience, and I liked it so much. But the commute was long, and it was a live-in situation, so I’d stay there for three days at a time and live there. It was exhausting, as much as I loved it. I started looking for something closer to home, and found a position at a group home in Ottawa.

Around that time I went back to school for the social service worker program, and I got a co-op placement at Housing Help. It was incredible. It opened my eyes to everything – poverty, homelessness, everything. I realized my calling was outreach – reaching out to people on the street and low-income people in rooming houses to help make them aware of the services that are available. I started working for Operation Come Home in January 2007. I keep growing in this environment, and my passion grows stronger. To me, there’s no need for these young adults to have to deal with what they do every day.

Can you tell me a little about what Operation Come Home does? 

We have six pillars of service. We started in 1971 with our Reunite Pillar, which focuses on reuniting runaway youth across Canada with their families. Right now we’re travelling a youth from Toronto to Newfoundland. It’s a really involved process. We work with Greyhound, and it’s a four-day trip to Newfoundland. We arrange for bagged lunches and snacks to meet him at pit stops, dropped off by shelters across Canada.

We also have an Outreach Pillar, an Employment Pillar, a Housing Pillar, an Education Pillar, and a Drop-in Pillar. Our point of contact is the drop in; youth come here and get to know the services we offer, realize what we can do for them. We can offer them employment through our Bottle Works social enterprise, our BeadWorks social enterprise, and the Job Action Centre, which is a skills development and employment centre with a full-time employment councillor. At the BeadWorks enterprise we have at-risk and homeless youth crafting one-of-a-kind jewellery, and we have a storefront to sell their creations, at 150 Gloucester. The youth create beautiful jewellery and get 75% of the profit. It’s an amazing store.  The shop is open from 10:00-5:00 from Monday to Friday.

Our school, the Achievement Centre, is partnered with the Ottawa Catholic School Board and Sage Youth. We have a full-time teacher, support staff and literacy support staff. Youth can come in and earn high school credits and prepare for their GED. We’re partnered with Lester B. Pearson high school, which means that youth who graduate through our program get a diploma or certificate from there – so there’s no stigma attached to graduating from a drop-in centre. We make the environment very safe, so no matter the reason a youth dropped out of school – bullying, teen pregnancy, because they are gay, bad family situations, all the many reasons kids drop out of school – they find support here. We have a lot of community partnerships, like with Ottawa Mental Health, Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, and the City of Ottawa Sexual Health Clinic.

Our outreach program runs twice a day. We go out there and try to find youth who are street homeless and connect them with housing options and other referrals. We hand out water and granola bars, sleeping bags, socks. The outreach workers try to find the youth who are in need, or new to the streets and scared and maybe don’t know about the young men and women’s shelters that are available to them. The outreach workers are volunteers, and we really can’t thank them enough.

What kind of challenges do homeless youth face in Ottawa?

I do think there are a lot of youth services in Ottawa, but the challenges of being a street youth are waiting lists for mental health, addiction, and housing. Waiting lists, waiting lists, waiting lists. That’s what our youth hear every day. There aren’t enough youth beds, and once you turn 18 you’re expected to stay at the adult shelters, which I don’t think is right. I do feel that there need to be more beds in Ottawa for youth. I know of probably 12 to 15 youths that access our services who sleep on the streets or in parking garages, or in bushes, or they camp. They don’t want to stay in shelters, or there’s not enough room in shelters, or they don’t want to stay in adult shelters. You know, I always say, “Come see me, just come see me,” because we’ll help them figure it out, help them find a place to stay. But they’re in groups, and they’re not going to leave anyone behind. So if someone can’t get a bed, none of them will go.

If you could change anything in Ottawa, what would it be?

I would just give these kids a chance. They’ve been so… pushed around. I know our drop-in is for youth aged 16 to 25 and they’re not really kids, but I call them my kids. They’re each just really amazing. I really want to see them do well, and I really want to see them be given a chance.