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The history of Youth Services Bureau includes 30 years of queer

Ottawa social services agency celebrates its 50th anniversary

CELEBRATION. Jean Yves Bénard stands beside the "My YSB at 50" mural, which was painted by six young people. Credit: Noreen Fagan

Youth Services Bureau turned 50 this month, but it still has a spring in its step.

The agency was established in 1960 as an offshoot of the welfare council of the City of Ottawa. It started with a $20,000 grant, two full-time staff and was mandated to respond to the growth of youth violence and to promote youth welfare.

“The community concern was galvanized around some issues around violence and a couple of deaths that resulted from that,” says Eva Schacherl, director of communications for YSB. “But it quickly became apparent that there was a need for direct service on the street.”

Five decades ago, YSB was primarily concerned with educating the community about youth welfare and conducted training for adult volunteers to work within disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Fast-forward to 2010 and the programs run by YSB span a wide range of services, including a significant queer contingent.

“One young person can move through that continuous service from finding shelter, or dealing with family issues or educational issues through to finding their first job, getting the training and the support they need to get into the workplace,” says Schacherl.

YSB serves about 3,000 youth and families every month in 20 service locations, including drop-in centres, housing and emergency shelters. The agency offers support in health services, education, housing and youth programs, including a queer component that started in 1980. The Rainbow Youth Advisory is part of the YSB’s youth engagement program.

These days, YSB does HIV-prevention work, helps out at GayZone, runs extra programming during Pride and recently raised a rainbow flag at its young men’s shelter (built at the site of a former gay bar). YSB is now helmed by the popular gay ex-politico Alex Munter.

Jean Yves Bénard works with the five young people who form the Rainbow Youth Advisory. They lead workshops with different service providers in different capacities throughout the city.

“We do sensitivity training and we also try to raise awareness about the kind of issues that queer youth face in Ottawa, whether in schools or with parents or family members,” says Bénard. “We also go into schools and do a kind of queer history 101 and [workshops] on different ways to create queer spaces and how to support people who are in the coming-out process.”

Earlier this month, YSB held its 50th anniversary celebration. At the event, organizers unveiled a mural — “My YSB at 50” — painted by six young people from the YSB’s youth engagement program.