by Gloria Welton
The Community Outreach Centre (COC) in Charlottetown opened in January 2020 to connect individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness to client-centered services. These services are in place to address clients’ basic needs and provide a safe space from 8 am to 8 pm.
In the month of June 2023, 288 clients accessed the services. Only five of those clients were from off Island. On average, they serve 100 clients per day.
The COC is funded by the provincial government and has partnerships with many community services. COC is operated by the non-profit Adventure Group, which has been supporting Islanders with employment and housing services for 30 years and has offices in Charlottetown and Montague.
The 22 staff at the COC provide services in areas such as the following:
- Client management support
- Mental health support coordination
- Education and training guidance
- Housing and employment stability
- Employment preparation and readiness
- Harm reduction
- Connections to addiction support
- Safe consumption supplies and safe disposal
- Warming centre
- Food and water, coffee, and tea
- Access to washrooms and laundry
- Clothing and safe storage
“The location is shared with community partners to enable wrap-around services for clients,” says Roxanne Carter Thompson, Executive Director of The Adventure Group, which operates the centre.
“We work together to give them the best hope for a better future, and everyone who comes here has the opportunity to lead a meaningful life.”
The facility features common areas, fitness equipment, laundry facilities, clothing donations, and snacks on the main floor. The second floor has meeting spaces and offices for staff and other service providers who meet with clients. On the lower level are classroom spaces, long-term storage space, a program room, and companion dog kennels.
Case Manager Beth Keoughan talks about her journey to a job that she loves and is passionate about
Beth is 34 years old and is a single mom with three children ages six and under. She lives in the Charlottetown area. She has worked at the COC for about a year. She has also been working at a restaurant for about 13 years.
“I went to UPEI right out of high school,” says Beth. “I didn’t really know what I wanted as a career and my life took a turn in the wrong direction, so I took some time off school.
“I went back to UPEI when I was 26 and took the Bachelor of Arts degree program with a major in sociology, diversity, and social justice.”
Beth says this gap in her education gave her time to sort out her life. “I struggled with mental health all my life, and also had addiction issues. During my early twenties I was not doing well.
“I wasn’t able to express my emotions and talk about things. But when I realized I could open up and talk about what was happening to me and connect better with people, things really started to change for the better in my life.”
“Fortunately, I had an amazing support system in my great parents, grandparents, and friends who gave me their all. I think a lot of my insight for the work I do now comes from my own experiences.”
She talked about a counsellor she had connected with at the age of 22 and kept in touch for 10 years. “She was the biggest contributor to my confidence and helped me find a pathway forward. She became a mentor to me, and I am still in contact with her today. She encouraged me to go back to school and gave me the confidence and push I needed.”
Beth had her first child during the middle of her degree at UPEI and after taking a month off, she brought her daughter to class with her. She went on to graduate in 2020.
“I was always interested in mental health and addictions, but I didn’t have time to volunteer and get work experience in the field. While working on my degree I developed a passion for human rights and justice. The education gave me a great foundation, but I lacked work experience.
“I always wanted to be a counsellor and my original plan was to be a Social Worker. After earning my degree, I had two children, and continuing my education was not an option at that point.”
Beth says she tried to find work in the helping profession but found it hard to get an entry-level job without experience. “I did find a short-term position as an administrative assistant at the new Epekwitk Assembly of Councils building in Charlottetown. They were amazing and I gained so much information on Indigenous rights and treaties and I was passionate about it all. After that job ended, I had my third child.”
Beth heard about a job at the COC through the program manager. “The manager had confidence in me and asked me to apply. Before starting here, I didn’t know much about the centre or about the homelessness crisis the province is in.”
She recalls being nervous because she wanted to achieve her goal of working with vulnerable populations, but she didn’t have the confidence yet.
Beth started at the centre in a part-time position because she didn’t know if she could give up the income from tips from her waitressing job. “Eventually I was given more hours because there was a need for someone to take over program coordination, including running workshops on such subjects as emotional regulation and other support activities for clients.
She has since moved into a full-time position on the case management team and still does some restaurant work on the side.
“I can honestly say this is a job I truly love. I love the team I work with, and our management is very supportive.”
She has a caseload of about 30 people. After a client meets with front-line staff there is an assessment to determine their needs and what support is required. “We have high caseload numbers, and we work on areas such as housing, mental health, addictions, employment, education, physical health, advocacy and more.
“Each client’s goals are different, but the most common one is housing. Mental health and addictions are certainly on the top of the list as well and people need help with employment.
“People’s circumstances can change daily so we try to walk along with them. There is a lot going on because every day is based on survival.
“There is a misconception that people choose to be in the situations they are in. I have learned from my own life experiences and my work here that people don’t want to be homeless or addicted.
“I can relate to some of our clients’ life stories. I believe addictions can stem from someplace in our past such as a trauma, and addictions are a coping mechanism. Once I hear people’s stories and connect with them, a bond is established, with boundaries of course. My compassion and love for this work is unmistakable.”
Beth says she works best when under pressure, but she has come to realize her limits and boundaries. “I find it hard not to feel other people’s pain when I hear a person’s story and they might be crying and feeling very troubled.
“One day I found it hard to let go of my feelings about someone else’s difficulty. A staff person said I should use those feelings as fuel to push forward and problem solve and find the services to connect and network with to continually build trust and confidence with the person.
“Dwelling on the situation too long will not benefit the person. We need to take a step in the right direction and make a plan. It is important to help people build skills that they haven’t yet developed or lost somehow along the way.
“The front-line team’s support of the case management team makes all the difference in the world. When someone decides they need help to get sober or to get help with recovery from addictions, we are here to help them get the help they need.
“Working in this field can feel like one step ahead and 10 steps back. But the next time it could be two steps ahead. Progress can be slow and it is different for everyone. If we can help one person get through the day, that is progress.”
One of Beth’s clients has let her know he is very grateful for the help she has given him; it has been lifesaving. Beth says this client can be hard to get to know because he tends to keep his distance, is very private, and has a hard outer shell.
“But he seems to respond to me, and I helped him to access healthcare. Eventually it was determined that he needed a kidney removed. He is disconnected from his family and doesn’t have anyone.
“He stays at Park Street Shelter, which does not provide a permanent location to live – only night by night. It is not a place where he can leave his belongings and have a home.
“When it was time to go for surgery, I drove him to QEH. I went back that evening to check on him. I can’t imagine that feeling of being alone especially at times like this.
“I could tell he was nervous, and I let him know we were there for him. During his time in the hospital, he got frustrated with how he was going to manage his care when he left the hospital. There was a misunderstanding between the healthcare professionals and the client that needed to be sorted out.
“I took him for a drive to get a coffee and to get some clothing and to let him know we are here to help as best we can.
“We were working with the manager at the Park Street housing to arrange for him to have his own room for the rest and privacy that he needed. But the room was only available for the nights. He still had to come to the centre in the daytime.
“An option for him that I am looking into is supportive housing, such as New Roots, which is run by the Salvation Army in Charlottetown.
“But there is no place for someone in this situation who needs a place to live and time to heal. So many people are without homes and we run into so many crisis situations that need immediate attention.
“Healthcare staff are busy all the time dealing with people who need care but don’t have help to sort through the supports they need and don’t have a home to go to. We become their advocates.
“Most clients do not have a cellphone so there is no way to connect with them. In many cases, case managers use their work number for healthcare or employment appointments and then relay messages to the clients.”
Skills and supports that are needed to help a vulnerable population
“The ability to work as a team, having compassion, and the patience to walk alongside each person’s situation are needed.
“Roxanne Carter Thompson and Donna Keenan, the upper management staff, are just incredible, and I have learned and grown so much under their supervision.
“As part of the team, case managers have access to a trauma counsellor and an energy therapist, and we have so much support. They certainly encourage us to reach our full potential, and I am very thankful.”
Beth says there are many reasons why she loves her job. “Working here makes me super grateful for my own life with my children. I have a whole new appreciation for all that I have, even though life can get hectic.
“The conditions and pressures caused by inflation are a big concern for more and more people. Rent and food costs are so high. And there are so many barriers to find housing: landlords require references and credit checks, you might have to sign a lease, you need to be employed, and maybe you need two incomes per household to be considered.
“For the population we serve at COC, there is no housing that is affordable or obtainable. We need more supportive transitional and recovery-based housing.
“The cost of renting or purchasing a home must come down. Housing costs about 75 percent of the income of people in entry-level jobs, and that is way too high.
“To afford rent is very difficult and to afford a mortgage is getting to be impossible, so what can people do? The services provided by COC are more critical than ever before, and homelessness can happen to anyone.”
Beth challenges people to come to the centre and see for themselves. “Unless you hear the stories or experience the life challenges, you can fall into the trap of misconceptions, not having all the facts, and developing false impressions. Everyone’s story is different, and life challenges can happen to everyone. It is happening in families more and more, so to think these situations can never touch you is not true.
“Our community and province need to be open minded and willing to work towards solutions that don’t further isolate people but bring us together.
“We have increased our security onsite, which has helped to watch for signs of disruption and outbreaks. We try to police non-consumption on our site. We watch very closely to make sure that people are being respectful and to determine if it is safe for them to stay with us here.
“We work with people who have many barriers, and they need our help, but safety is always our priority outside and inside the centre.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
about the Community Outreach Centre, call 902-367-3884.