When Karen Nielsen and Leigh Reid were terminated from their full-time social work positions, they didn’t realize that it was the best thing that could have happened to them.
So too was it a blessing in disguise for anyone in the Ottawa community lucky enough to receive their services in the subsequent decade, because it allowed for them to create Highjinx, “a store that is so much more than a store, [because it serves as] a community house, safe house, food bank, furniture bank and a place where people can hang out [pre-pandemic], where the community can come and meet each other.”
In March 2011, the two women hit the ground running and embarked on their hunt for a simpler solution to the problems that plague society’s most vulnerable.
Having contributed to Ottawa’s adoption of the Housing First Model, which moves people experiencing homelessness into housing as soon as possible while providing additional support as needed, they knew exactly what was required.
“We saw that it just worked," explains Nielsen. "When you give someone a home and you support them in that home by connecting them and work as a group then the person is very successful. They feel like they belong. It’s that sense of that belonging that is probably the answer to homelessness.”
However, they were running into endless roadblocks, including the red tape that so often accompanies the delivery of government aid.
“We realized that we are so tired of answering to ‘the man’ -- making up stats so that it fits the profile so that the funding is given. We decided that we were going to do it ourselves and help people the way that they want to be helped: let them define if they’re vulnerable or not; let them define if their housing is secure or not; and let them ask for what they want. We found a novel way to do it, which isn’t really that novel, it’s the most old-fashioned way to help your neighbours.”
Nielsen and Reid used their own personal cash as a starter and have “flown by the seat of our pants ever since.” And although it took a few tries to find their forever home, Nielsen says that they think they finally have, in their cozy quarters, nestled in the heart of Centretown.
The retail store remains the crux of the entire Highjinx initiative, and it’s there where you can find an array of treasures. Meander among two floors and find anything from vintage furniture, home decor items and gently used instruments to artwork and local products.
It’s much like walking into an old curiosity shop explains Nielsen, and the funds are then rerouted back into paying the rent and bills. The net profit is further used to help people directly through various avenues -- whatever that may look like for any given individual. Another important aspect is the community donations and in-kind gifts, without which they wouldn’t be able to help as much as they do.
Although the pandemic has forced Highjinx to greatly reduce its hours, and folks now have limited time to come through, hang out, and simply connect, the organization certainly isn’t slowing down, but spending more time on outreach initiatives.
At Highjinx, the criteria is that there is no criteria; there are no boxes to check off, and users don't even have to reveal their names.
“If we engage with you, we’re there for you. It’s a great privilege to be of service to other people that need help," says Nielsen. "We see a lot of interesting and magical kinds of things happen at Highjinx. It’s a store but it’s also like walking into your grandma’s house."
Highjinx is open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday 12 p.m. - 4 p.m., and they are currently accepting donations. More information can be found on Highjinx's website.