Ottawan launches outreach group after working with local homeless population for 12 years

By Douglas Boyle

Since coming to Ottawa in 2008, Shawna Thibodeau has been working with homeless outreach groups.

She started Shawna’s Outreach after the founder of Shadow Ottawa had to step back from outreach work during the pandemic, for personal reasons.

COVID-19 had brought new challenges to everyone’s lives, but Thibodeau wanted to keep helping people.  

She continues to be supported by her partner, family, and restaurants around the city, since launching in 2020. Now working every day of the week, Thibodeau prepares care packages and essentials to hand out on the weekends.

“We try to get to the people who slipped through the cracks, the people who might not have eaten in a few days or who were turned away from shelters. It doesn’t matter if its plus or minus 40 degrees outside, we are out there,” says Thibodeau.

“We used to do it once a month, but since COVID-19, we’ve been out there every week. Our motto has always been, if you’re hungry, we’ll feed you.”

Thibodeau’s organization receives no funding and is entirely volunteer-based. Monetary donations are appreciated with the understanding that not everyone has the means to deliver goods. However, essentials such as convenient food items, hygiene products and comfort items that can be quickly distributed are preferred.

By using Amazon Wish List during the pandemic, Thibodeau has been receiving an endless stream of small but vital items to deliver to those in need, but there is always a need for more.

“What I wish people knew is how something small can save a life. A $3 gift card can get someone out of the cold, allow them to get hot liquid into their system and, more than that, it gives them a chance to stand in line and pay for themselves. It gives them an opportunity to feel like a normal person,” says Thibodeau.

“People on the streets will never take more than what they need in the moment. We try to give them extras, but they will not take it. A lot of people are out there, and they are hungry. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting with them and listening to them. That is when it becomes real.”

Last year Thibodeau was recognized by the City of Ottawa for her service to the community.

“I don’t do it for the praise, I’d rather stay under the radar and just do the work,” she says.

“I realize it has to be put out there, and the awareness it brings when people get recognized. I was also one of the people you could vote for in Faces Magazine’s volunteer of the year, and I hated the fact that it was there but I loved the fact that it would get some recognition and have some more people realize what I do.”

Even though she's grateful for the recognition, Thibodeau still feels there is a disconnect with the system that allows so many Canadians to spend their nights homeless in the nation’s capital.

“There are all these amazing services like housing, drug counselling, mental health services and food banks, but it feels like none of these services talk to each other. There was an example of a man being housed in an apartment after 20 years on the street. That is great, but we cannot just put someone in an empty apartment and call it a day,” says Thibodeau.

“I hope it's tomorrow that I’m not needed, but I’m not going to stop caring for people in need.”

Thibodeau believes that a network of services with strong communication could be the next step in addressing homelessness at its root. However, until the day comes that outreach is no longer necessary in the capital, she will continue trying to make a difference.

To find out more about Shawna’s Outreach or to make a donation, visit its Facebook page.  

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