By Ashton Starr
A group of four volunteers with the Ottawa chapter of Food Not Bombs are loading a van from the Carleton Food Collective’s community kitchen in early February. In the van, the crew loaded up a large cardboard box of premade sandwiches, a bin full of plastic bags of personal hygiene products and warm clothing, an assortment of serving equipment, and an electric slow cooker with soup made earlier that day.
“You’re going to have to ride with the soup on your lap,” the driver tells one of the passengers. “Just don’t hit any bumps,” another volunteer laughs.
They’re enthusiastic and methodical as they prepare for their second time providing outreach services to the homeless population in the Byward Market and along Rideau Street. The volunteers have an obvious plan of action as they go over mental checklists of supplies they require and procedures to follow, including what roles each one of them is taking on.
Half of the volunteers will stay with the vehicle, plugging in the electric slow cooker and serving soup, tea, and coffee to anyone who approaches them. The other half will carry supplies through the downtown streets in a collapsible folding wagon nicknamed “Wheelaboo,” an incredibly useful tool they rely on heavily during the walk.
After a couple of hours of handing out supplies, they’re almost depleted, and the perishables are all gone. The volunteers regroup to talk about their success, pack up, and head back to store the remaining supplies at the community kitchen.
“It’s like Uber Eats, but free!”
Street outreach services are even more crucial now, as four emergency shelters in Ottawa have paused new admissions due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak. The pause was announced in a January 29 joint statement by Shepherds of Good Hope, the Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre, Cornerstone Housing for Women, and the Ottawa Mission. The shelters were also moving residents who tested positive for the virus to isolation centres.
As previously reported by The Leveller, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ottawa in March 2020, residents started forming neighbourhood mutual aid organizations to support neighbours and community members through Facebook groups and phone trees. Ottawa Street Medics and a local Food Not Bombs chapter are two similar organizations that started during 2020 and that work directly on the street to aid the city’s homeless population.
Food Not Bombs is a non-hierarchical international movement for food security. Anyone can use the ‘Food Not Bombs’ slogan for the purpose of providing free food to the public. The movement started in 1980 in Massachusetts, with activists providing people with food under an ethos that opposed war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment. The grassroots nature of the movement has often put on-the-ground groups in conflict with local governments and police, who have threatened activists with arrests and fines due to the group not having a valid permit that would institutionalize their work.
In Ottawa, a local chapter has launched different initiatives by different activists off and on for the past decade, including in 2013 when the group would also cook at the Carleton Food Collective’s kitchen and serve in Dundonald Park on a weekly basis.
In the 2020 iteration, the group collects donations of perishable food from local grocers that would otherwise not be sold. The food is cooked and frozen at the kitchen, and prepared for delivery. The group announces available meals through an online form that simply asks for the order quantity and delivery instructions for the drivers. Income and housing status are purposely absent from the meal request forms that are shared over their social media.
“It’s like Uber Eats, but free!” One volunteer exclaimed during the February street outreach.
The other way Food Not Bombs gets food to the people is these street outreach programs, which happen when the volunteers can align their schedules to go out together. The group buys what they don’t receive in donations — non-perishable foods, hygiene products, and comfort items like cigarettes. These expenses are paid through crowdfunding and e-transfers they’ve garnered through their Facebook pages and Instagram.
Ottawa Street Medics have been doing similar street outreach since September. The group of volunteers wear reflective vests and red hard hats to visibly identify themselves as they use a fleet of wagons to hand out supplies and carry life-saving Naloxone kits on a regular basis.
“More of a social movement than an organization”
Ottawa Street Medics originated at the start of the pandemic, when Daniel Bailey became unemployed and found a lot of free time on his hands. He also found people without homes in his neighbourhood in desperate need of food and warm clothing. He began handing out food in Dundonald Park and the surrounding neighbourhood of centretown. After doing this alone for months, he started seeking help through Instagram.
A street medic is typically an activist with first-aid knowledge and training who volunteers to provide basic medical support at protests and rallies, whether that involves handing out water and sunscreen or providing assistance to injuries or resuscitation. Bailey said he did not see an organization taking on this work and decided to offer it himself at different protests in Ottawa.
This experience transferred into an organized effort to collect donations and distribute supplies to people living on the streets. Now Ottawa Street Medics has 25 core members, with an additional 30 on a waiting list about to be trained — including a paramedic who is developing a first-responders course to provide medical training to Ottawa Street Medics members.
In an interview with The Leveller, Jen (who asked to only use their first name) discussed how the latest Food Not Bombs initiative began in the summer of 2020 after connecting with previous organizers through the local Facebook group. Jen started setting up Zoom meetings among 5 people who were interested in relaunching Food Not Bombs, which eventually became active with 20 regular participants in December, while also using Instagram to recruit volunteers.
The organizers have been able to do this work due to having more time and reduced expenses. “I was going to get a job, but the pandemic hit,” Jen explains. “I was at home a lot and playing Animal Crossing and was like ‘Maybe I should do something.’” They went from playing a video game focused on building a community among an assortment of adorable creatures, to building a network of people who wanted to support the community around them through Food Not Bombs.
Bailey said his rental situation enabled him to start Ottawa Street Medics, since he was able to negotiate reduced payments with his landlord. “I have the cheapest rent situation I have ever seen in this city, and I would be remiss and possibly disappointed in myself if I could not use that privilege I lucked into to then build that upward mobility for other people.”
Bailey’s past experiences with homelessness and help also motivated him. He said, “I credit my shelter as the only reason that I could access healing, and access the compassion and the empathy that I needed to learn and reconnect with after a life of violence and PTSD.”
Bailey described his experiences with homelessness as he moved from rural Ontario to Ottawa, lived in an abusive relationship, and often felt the streets were safer than his alternatives. In 2011, he was fortunate enough to find Kind Space, an LGBTQ resource centre, access their programs and began volunteering with them. Bailey was able to find a caring community “with love, kindness, compassion, and unconditional support.”
“I was suddenly immersed in an environment that was the polar opposite of everything I had known before.” As well as finding affordable housing, Bailey states that having this kind of community support was where he could heal, engage in mutual aid activities individually, and eventually organize with other people.
Finding a community is also how these organizations became real and sustainable. Starting an organization alone can be difficult. Both organizers found people to take on additional work through social media contacts. Bailey states that he purposely reduced barriers to begin volunteering for Ottawa Street Medics, particularly any requirement for a police reference check, a SIN, identification, or parole conditions, despite being offered these credentials. “We never ask for and aren’t interested in [these documents],” Bailey states.
“We needed something new — an organization run on mutual aid principles versus charity. Nobody’s paid to do this work, but we’re all cared for.” Bailey mentioned an instance in which Ottawa Street Medics had financially supported a member with physiotherapy from an injury they received while volunteering.
Bailey wouldn’t accept financial donations to the Ottawa Street Medics for months. As a current ODSP recipient, he knew the provincial government’s case workers would be monitoring his bank account for an influx of money. Expenses were paid out of pocket, with some volunteers holding the Ottawa Street Medics funds in their accounts, until the group maneuvered through obstacles to setting up a bank account to accept e-transfers. The group practices community transparency when they ask for funding, including publicly discussing their needs, donations, and expenditures. Bailey praises their crowdfunding as a reason for Ottawa Street Medics’s ability to pick and choose their financial endeavours quickly and effectively.
“It’s been described by a couple of folks that we’ve helped as more of a social movement than an organization. It has inspired them to do the same things once we offer them stability… That’s what we’re trying to do — give people that dignity and give people the options for what they need, and not for what they can prove they need.” Bailey says they are seeing results, and that some of those who received support from Ottawa Street Medics have started to support their own neighbours.
Bailey wants to differentiate the work of Ottawa Street Medics from groups like Ottawa Police Services’ Neighbourhood Resource Teams. This is an important distinction, as Bailey describes it. “Our entire base is people who are not interested in police solutions, and are interested in compassion-based, non-aggressive and non-weapon-based solutions.”
This approach has resulted in an “overwhelming response” from potential volunteers looking to be involved with Ottawa Street Medics. Reducing the barriers to recruit willing volunteers and the obstacles to request support allow for the organizers to act differently than a charity. They believe this is much more effective to support the people who need it, and to allow people to engage with mutual aid models of organizing.
“Ideally, we would like to not have to exist”
Including an entire community to take direct actions to support one another, instead of relying on government and charity, relates directly to their principles and what end-goals these movements have.
“Mostly we’re trying to build community resilience in order to support resistance to oppression,” Bailey says of the work of Ottawa Street Medics. In this case, mutual aid movements provide the autonomous alternative to City of Ottawa services that have not been adequate in providing care for those living in the city.
“Ideally, we would like to not have to exist,” Jen says of Food Not Bombs. “We would like total liberation, because the mere thought of hunger would not exist in an ideal world.” For Jen, this liberation would mean the end of the capitalist economy, where workers have to sell their time and labour to purchase commodities like food and shelter. Until such a time, “working still within a capitalist system, we would continue to do what we do” Jen says, providing free food for people where it is otherwise inaccessible.
Bailey also envisions a world in which his work is no longer necessary. “Universal Basic Income would make us obsolete. Affordable housing would make us obsolete. All we’re doing is trying to patch the social safety net.” Universal Basic Income aims to provide people with a minimum income to meet their basic needs, no matter what. A universal basic income pilot was launched in Ontario in 2017 that would provide additional support on top of a family’s income or social assistance, but was cut 10 months later by the Progressive Conservatives.
Street-level mutual aid projects are filling in a gap where they see governments of different levels failing to provide adequate aid to the people around them. The organizers of Food Not Bombs and Ottawa Street Medics have demonstrated that anyone with the desire to care for their neighbours can do so. Bailey encourages people to “start where you are — the more hyper-local the better… there are always people somewhere [who can help], and especially since the pandemic, there are more people.”