As homelessness increases in communities across Canada, West Nipissing is no exception. Starting at the beginning of March, Gislain Ouellette has been seeking out those who are at risk in Sturgeon Falls, in order to provide the supports they may need to keep a proper roof over their head.
Ouellette is an outreach worker with True Self Debwewendizwin, an organization operated under the auspices of Nipissing First Nation that provides services to anyone in need, from Mattawa to Sturgeon Falls. He plans on being in town at least once a week for the foreseeable future.
Donna Forget, program manager for True Self, explains that her program was initially directed at endangered women when it started 15 years ago, offering a multitude of empowerment and education programs for women. It has recently moved to providing services without gender bias. True Self has its office in North Bay, but they are reaching out as communities such as Mattawa and Sturgeon Falls are also experiencing a spike in people finding themselves without shelter.
“Eight years ago, we got extra funding from DNSSAB and were able to start a men’s side of the program… It’s a peer support model but with an indigenous worldview. If we want to heal a community, we can’t just work with the women… If there are no services for the men they won’t get any better …and then with COVID it gave us a whole new shift.” Forget explains that many people on the street are also victims of trauma, suffering some of the same results as women who experience domestic violence. The organization works with mental health issues and addictions, and has done previous outreach in West Nipissing. When COVID hit, so many services were locked down, and DNSSAB asked True Self if they could establish the outreach services.
“I did a proposal in September, and we got Gislain [Ouellette] – hired him March 1st. He’s doing street outreach to all the smaller communities; goes to Sturgeon once a week, Redbridge, Elbee, Mattawa, Bonfield, Rutherglen, Callander – all the little communities around us that don’t have a lot of supports.” Forget says they come here so the homeless don’t have to worry about travelling to North Bay; Ouellette meets them, distributes PPE, reusable masks and hand sanitizer, talks to people in the street, finds out where people are camping out or living rough or couch surfing.
“For Sturgeon it’s really important. Once COVID is over we are looking for another office space there, so he has a place people can go to as well… On those days he goes to Sturgeon, he does to face- to-face, but he does it outside and practices social distancing. We know for a lot of people with mental health concerns, the isolation piece is the absolute worst, and Zoom conferences and telephone calls just don’t do it. Sometimes they need to see another human face… and especially with the homeless, most of them don’t have a phone, and if they do they don’t have any data on it.”