Arts program for homeless youth forced to find new space

An arts program for homeless youth in Ottawa is looking for a new studio after renovations at a downtown church are forcing them to relocate.

'We can’t afford to let this program be lost,' says executive director

Jay Labovitch, 21, says Ottawa Innercity Ministries' arts program helped her stay sober after kicking an addiction to hard drugs. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

An arts program for homeless youth in Ottawa is itself looking for a new home after being forced out of its downtown studio.

On Saturday morning, Jay Labovitch and a dozen other youth with Ottawa Innercity Ministries met for the last time at St. Peter and St. Paul's Anglican Church, which is about to undergo major renovations.

They packed up their easels, canvases and musical instruments, filling the moving truck waiting outside.

"It's so hard to pack up where you've made your memories," Labovitch said. "We're going to find something. We're going to make it work."

Every Wednesday and Thursday evening, dozens of youth gather at the downtown church, creating art and sharing a warm meal provided by Ottawa Innercity Ministries staff.

As part of the program, youth are paired up with an adult mentor who helps them set and achieve personal goals.

Forced out of their rental space due to renovations, volunteers and youth with Ottawa Innercity Ministries load up a moving truck donated by Dymon Storage. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

After living on the street for several years, Labovitch, 21, said she felt at home when she joined Ottawa Innercity Ministries two years ago.

"When I come here, I let loose," she said. "It means so much. We have hundreds of dollars of equipment. When I was homeless, I didn't have three dollars to go to the dollar store to buy a canvas."

Steering clear of trouble

Labovitch credits the friends she's made through the program for helping her stay sober, having overcome an addiction to amphetamines.

"So many of us can appreciate what OIM has done," she said. "It kept us yearning for something. Knowing we have this every Thursday, it definitely keeps me going."

Like Labovitch, Larissa-Jean Hannah-Nikolai, 24, has been attending the program for the past two years.

Larissa-Jean Hannah-Nicolai, 24, sits in the Ottawa Innercity Ministries arts space at the St. Peter and St. Paul's Anglican Church on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2018. Hannah-Nicolai has been attending the group' arts program for about two years. She says it has helped her build self-esteem and stay away from crime. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Besides giving her opportunities to give back to her community, Hannah-Nikolai said the studio has helped her and her friends turn away from drugs and crime.

"They all have pardons on their criminal records, because they've been coming here instead of going out and getting into more trouble," she said. "I don't have a criminal record, but it prevents me from getting one."

Scrambling for a new space

It's those kinds of changes that keep the program's executive director Ken MacLaren going.

"We can't afford to let this program be lost," he said. "It's just too important."

Ken MacLaren, executive director of Ottawa Innercity Ministries, says he's grateful for the support he's received from the community so far and hopes to find a new space soon. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

The program has helped youth get back into school, find part-time work and secure a spot in drug rehabilitation programs, MacLaren said. Some youth are even reuniting with parents.

Though renovations were planned at the church, MacLaren expected he would have until the summer to find a new location.

But the church sped up its construction schedule, he said, leaving the youth program scrambling.

'We're not done yet'

MacLaren said he's grateful for the support he's received so far from the community.

Dymon Storage has provided a moving truck free of charge, along with free storage space, while MacLaren searches for a new home.

MacLaren said he's contacted more than 70 groups hoping they might have space available, adding that it's hard to compete with other organizations who can more easily afford downtown rental rates.

The Ottawa School of Art has offered to host the program temporarily in the ByWard Market, but MacLaren hopes he'll find a new permanent home soon — one that can offer about 1,200 square feet and access to kitchen facilities.

"We're not done yet. This is not over," MacLaren said. "There's another chapter yet to open up for us."