One of the city’s main meal providers for Ottawa’s homeless is not open at lunch — unless you sit through the 11am chapel service, says one of its clients. Even though they’re partially funded by public dollars.
Officials from The Ottawa Mission initially denied it.
After Laura-Lee Dupe, 19, was refused a seat at lunch in December, she was told that the 11:30am meal was “only for residents.” But she says it’s well known that those who attend the Christian service on the second floor are fed afterwards.
“And I had not attended the church service,” says Dupe. She won’t attend the service because she’s not Christian.
Diane Morrison, executive director of The Ottawa Mission, initially said that when people are turned away from lunch, it’s not for failing to attend the service. She says there is no “compulsory prayer” at any of The Ottawa Mission’s meals.
“No, absolutely not. They have to be a resident. She would have be asked to come back for the three o’clock,” she said.
“She’s more than welcome to come back to our community meals at eight and three,” added Morrison.
Dupe says it’s ridiculous that they denied a pregnant 19-year-old food because she isn’t a Christian. She’s equally adamant about how business is conducted at The Ottawa Mission.
“That’s bullshit,” she says. “They feed non-residents that go to the church service.”
But Capital Xtra learned that the Ottawa Mission regularly served women at lunch — and The Ottawa Mission is a men’s only shelter. In other words, there are no women residents, therefore people other than residents were being served lunch.
Repeated studies show members of the gay and lesbian community are more vulnerable to homelessness and addiction than their straight counterparts, especially queer youth. Citizens might expect that centres that provide care for these demographics in exchange for taxpayer’s money must therefore be sensitive to the needs of its queer clients — and for city hall to be vigilant. Both the city’s main downtown shelters — The Ottawa Mission and Shepherds Of Good Hope — are Christian organizations receiving public dollars.
Repeated calls to get The Ottawa Mission to clarify its position went unanswered. After more than a dozen attempts to get hold of Morrison — including through media representative Samantha Lapratt — to confirm whether women were served at the noon meal, she told us to stop calling the office.
“There have always been women,” served at the noon meal, Morrison says.
That’s because “we can choose” who is served at the noon meal, says Morrison. The women at the noon meal are “people who are here that use our other services.”
And that, she admits, includes the chapel service.
She points out that there are public meals in the morning and afternoon. She says that their “contract with the city” feeds residents only, based on a per diem for clients.
“We do the rest out of the goodness of our hearts,” she says – but she makes it clear that they are “under no obligation” to do so.
She said there ought not to be public scrutiny of The Ottawa Mission because “the majority” of funds at The Ottawa Mission are donated privately. She would not say how much money they get from the city.
To civil libertarians concerned with the separation of church and state, that just doesn’t jive.
“We are indeed concerned,” says Michael Vonn, the policy director of the BC Civil Liberty Association.
“Private organizations can set whatever standards they wish, but publicly funded social services should not be leveraging lunch and folding it into a religious service,” says Vonn.
Vonn sees the issue as more complicated than it seems on its face.
“Complaints of this kind are exceedingly rare. Which part of which dollar goes where? Undoubtedly, that’s complicated,” she says.
It’s complicated, and Morrison refuses to clarify. She says that questions about city money should be referred to the municipality. City spokesperson Barry Campbell was unable to look up the amount of the grant prior to Capital Xtra’s press deadline.
“The answers are a little pat here. If we’ve made a huge pot of soup, how much of that soup comes from private money, how much from the city?” she says.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s an information vacuum.”
The United Way is one of The Ottawa Mission’s major donors. They donate over $140,000 a year to the Mission’s life skills program, according to Eileen Dooley. Dooley calls The Ottawa Mission a “very strong organization.”
“We have a mandate to invest dollars where they are needed the most,” says Dooley, pointing out that the Mission has a palliative care program, one of the only programs in North America offering the service.
The United Way doesn’t fund the Mission’s food program, but she says, “We don’t fund faith-based organizations.”
As for Dupe, her December meeting has left her angry.
“I just gave up. I was too pissed off,” she says.
She says that she went to the front door — on Nicholas St — and the front door person turned her down. Knowing that non-residents who attended the service were fed, she was frustrated that she would turned away.
“I said, ‘Are you refusing to feed me?'”
“He said he would remove me physically,” says Dupe. “He slammed the door in my face.”
She says she and a friend went back in January and got a meal ticket for the noon service – but she got the ticket from a priest or pastor, she told Capital Xtra when we followed up with her.
“So they definitely feed non-residents,” she says. She continues to be surprised at the Mission’s practices.
The Ottawa Mission’s mission statement is explicitly Christian: “The Ottawa Mission reflects Jesus’ love in serving the homeless, the hungry and the lost by providing, food, clothing shelter and skills, and offers faith and hope for building a wholesome life.”
“From its inception in 1906, the Mission has been propelled by Christian spirit,” notes their website. “Its founders were motivated by the desire to help those who do not have the resources to help themselves and it is this same faith-based spirit that guides [and] supports the ministry of the Mission today.”
Printed posters that said that the noon meal was only for residents began appearing after Dupe complained. Morrison claims that those posters were already around, but that new ones were printed recently and displayed prominently to make sure that everyone knew the rules.