A pair of social workers who run a communal living room and furniture bank in Ottawa’s Chinatown are being forced by their landlord to relocate. Karen Nielsen and Leigh Reid run HighJinx, a little shop on Somerset Street where they do everything from serving meals to selling antiques.
Both had previously worked in the traditional social-work system but found that the bureaucracy and red tape presented too much of a barrier when it came to helping their clients quickly and directly. So they teamed up and decided to go rogue, opening HighJinx as a place to connect directly with the people they serve.
Reid and Nielsen help to place vulnerable people in housing, setting them up with basic life essentials and working to connect them with community resources. “We knew that we needed a furniture bank — a storage full of toasters and linens and, you know, the incidentals that you need for a household,” Nielsen says.
They receive furniture and goods by donation, which they use to keep the bank stocked. They also sell antiques and odds and ends, using the proceeds to keep the space running and to cover things like rent, hydro and incidentals for clients who need it.
“We decided we wanted to try and simplify things in the way people get help,” Reid says. “[People] can come in and get what they need here and not have to wait and be assessed. We found the traditional system wasn’t working for a lot of people.” HighJinx has been at its Somerset location for three and a half years, and in that time it has become nothing short of a neighbourhood institution.
Neighbours and clients mingle in the space, sharing a meal and a chat and coming together in ways not possible in the shelter system. In an average week, Nielsen says, they see more than 100 clients.
But on Sept 9, that changed. Reid says she was approached by their landlord, who told her they were no longer welcome in the space and would have to leave. While she says no reason was given, the pair believe the landlord may have found a tenant willing to pay more rent for the space. “We completely understand — it’s a business decision,” she says. “We just wish it hadn’t gone down so suddenly. We wish we had a little more time to sort of organize and pack and stuff.”
Because Nielsen and Reid were leasing the space on a month-to-month basis, the landlord had legal grounds to terminate their tenancy as per the Ontario Commercial Tenancies Act, which states that a minimum one-month written notice must be provided. “[The landlord] has the right to make more money,” Nielsen says. “I understand. He had discounted our rent initially and never raised it, so the time has come. It’s a business decision — he needs to raise the rent; we can’t afford it.”
When Xtra spoke with them on Oct 7, the pair were in the process of emptying out the shop and moving bigger items into storage. They plan to open again at a new location in early November, but in the meantime, they will continue to feed and house their clients. “We’ve moved the food pantry over to my house, so people can come by appointment — I’m not going to be open 24/7, but come and get some food,” Nielsen says.
Reid says that in the intervening time she and Nielsen will do some of their casework in clients’ homes, which will give them the opportunity to check up on people and see how they’re doing. Nielsen says that clients who have yet to be placed in housing will remain a priority. “We won’t let this push us back, because they come first. So we are still able to serve them; we just can’t do it at the store . . . we see this move as secondary to the work that we do with the neighbours.”
Reid and Nielsen’s client demographic includes many people from the LGBT community, as well as people living with HIV. They have helped place people who have lost their housing because of illness and rehoused those who have lost their partners and had to move.
They also work with members of the transgender community, who Nielsen says often need to find housing quickly because of the inherent danger they face in the shelter system, where gender non-conformity can put them at risk of violence and where she says trans women are often expected to identify as male. “We see the need to house [trans people] as quickly as possible. That truly is a priority, unless the city wants to really take on this issue and provide a safe homeless shelter for this demographic.”
It isn’t only housing that Reid and Nielsen have made possible. Nielsen mentions one client, George, whose dream was to be on a float in the Capital Pride parade. “Being a vulnerable person, he didn’t have the ability to get himself on a Pride float, and this year we cajoled and partnered with CAPSA, and they invited him to dance on their float. And it was George’s dream come true. He was just over the moon . . . And that was easy. Helping really is easy. It made a big difference for George.”
The pair are currently in the process of securing a new Centretown location that — with two floors, a basement and a backyard — will allow them to expand their services and introduce new wellness options for their clients. Nielsen says they plan to launch a new website that will outline how best to donate useful items directly to the vulnerable, as well as bring on practitioners of everything from expressive art to hairstyling to meditation.
They also plan to pursue a partnership with the Odawa Native Friendship Centre, which will allow them to form an education program for women.
But they still regret having to leave 621 Somerset. The Chinatown location is part of what has made them so accessible to their clients, many of whom live in the area. “It’s a very central location, so it’s easy for them to get to,” Reid says. “And there’s a lot of people in this neighbourhood that, you know, need a little help.”