Friday, July 19, 2024

Highjinx ladies, and many volunteers, helping those in need

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‘Early this year, we started noticing that people who used to help us, we’re now helping. They’re coming to get food instead of to give food.’

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The scene on a recent Saturday at highjinx, a vintage/thrift store on Kent Street near Somerset, resembled a busy Pieter Bruegel painting. It always does.

While owners Karen Nielsen and Leigh Reid, the queen bees at the centre of this hive, wrapped some knickknacks for a customer, the steady buzz and thrum of social philanthropy surrounded them, as a small army of helpers worked to improve the lives of their “neighbours,” the term Nielsen and Reid use to describe the homeless, at risk, marginalized or otherwise precariously situated downtown residents who rely on highjinx’s many kindnesses.

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“We’ve called them neighbours for 20 years, because we’re all in this together,” says Nielsen.

In a kitchen behind the store’s sales counter, two St. Paul’s high school students, David Reed and Gibson Moore, made and served turkey burritos and salad to some neighbours. The two teens have been helping out once a month for about a year-and-a-half, long ago fulfilling their 40 hours of volunteer work required to graduate. But they keep coming back.

Highjinx
Volunteers 17-year-old David Reed and 17-year-old Gibson Robert D’Amico Moore were cooking up delicious meals for neighbours. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

“It’s fun,” said Reed. “The atmosphere here is great, and just coming down and helping is always fun.”

Meanwhile, a young woman who didn’t want to share her story of vulnerability, simply sat for hours on a stool, visibly comforted by the warmth and safety of the surroundings.

Another woman briefly popped her head through the open doorway and set down a bag of groceries she was donating.

Upstairs, a couple perused a room filled with furniture and housewares that aren’t to be sold to customers, but rather given to those in need.

Another volunteer, Patrick McGrath, was there, too, helping out however he could, as he’s done almost every day for the past nine years. Once homeless himself, he knows the life, and the need. “I’ll run errands for people, deliver food to them if they can’t get out,” he said. “I know what it’s like sleeping on the streets in the cold. I know what it’s like not to have food. When I was on the street, 30 years ago, we had no programs to help.

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Highjinx
Highjix may look like an eclectic vintage store at first glance, but Karen Nielsen and Leigh Reid, joined by volunteers, do almost everything under the one roof, from feeding community members to helping any way they can. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

“I’ve taken from society, so I’m paying back” he added. “I do like helping people, and just knowing that somebody is walking away with a smile on their face and that they got a full belly, it puts a smile on my face.”

Nielsen and Reid, both former social workers with the city and each a Centretown resident, opened highjinx 13 years ago with the idea of being a furniture bank where the vulnerable could come and get the things they needed. But when a friend one day brought in a crockpot of soup to distribute, food quickly became their most important commodity.

“We served the soup on a Friday,” Nielsen recalled, “and that became Feeding Friday. So we committed to a meal every Friday. And then a food bank had to come with that, and it just evolved.”

Highjinx
Highjix may look like an eclectic vintage store at first glance, but Karen Nielsen and Leigh Reid, joined by volunteers, do almost everything under the one roof, from feeding community members to helping any way they can. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

They help out in a variety of other ways, whether it’s using basic first-aid or referring neighbours to various services.

They don’t know exactly how many neighbours they help, but it’s a lot. They give out about 15,000 meals a year, a figure they say is only increasing. Forty-three per cent of their neighbours are in unsafe housing. About 60 per cent are outdoors, on the street. “I’d say it really started getting worse with Covid, but even more so just in the last year,” says Nielsen. “Early this year, we started noticing that people who used to help us, we’re now helping. They’re coming to get food instead of to give food. That’s when you know things have flipped.” On a recent Tuesday, Reid adds, they provided more than 100 meals. “We serve hundreds each week,” she says. “Hundreds, and it’s increasing at an alarming rate.”

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Highjinx
Highjinx is all about connecting people and giving a helping hand. Volunteer Connie Stevens serves up a delicious meal to a neighbour through the kitchen window. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Reid points to low vacancy rates and high rents in Ottawa as chief culprits in a worsening situation. “Where are these people to go?” she asks. “There’s nowhere for them to go. They come to us for an answer, and we don’t have one.”

Yet the pair try to be hopeful, and are encouraged by some recent initiatives in Ottawa. One, the Block Leaders Program recently launched by Ottawa Inner City Health, encourages drug users and shelter residents in the ByWard Market to enforce community expectations, such as not using drugs in the open when children are around. Another is the Alternate Neighbourhood Crisis Response program, or ANCHOR, which, when it launches in August, will see community-led teams, rather than uniformed police, respond to mental-health and substance-use crises.

“We remain optimistic, because what else can you do?” says Nielsen. “If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry.

“We want to help, and all we can do is all we can do. We’re not trying to save the world, we’re just trying to help, day by day.”

bdeachman@postmedia.com

Highjinx
Highjinx is all about connecting people and giving a helping hand. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
Highjinx
Highjinx is all about connecting people and giving a helping hand. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
Highjinx
Highjinx is all about connecting people and giving a helping hand. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
Highjinx
Highjinx is all about connecting people and giving a helping hand. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
Highjinx
Highjinx is all about connecting people and giving a helping hand. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
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