“The problem in Ottawa is housing is still very expensive and there isn’t enough affordable housing. And the pressure on land…land’s very valuable,” says Rachel Robinson, executive director of St. Luke’s Table, a drop-in day program run by the diocese of Ottawa.
For people who have trouble living independently or need support for an illness, disability or addiction, Robinson says rooming houses may be the only alternative to sleeping on the street.
“Some of the rooming houses…are not complying with legislation…you know, people without smoke detectors in their rooms and without proper cooking facilities, seven people sharing one bathroom. Bedbugs, cockroach infestations, vermin infestations. It’s really awful,” she says. “No one should be living in those conditions.”
Rooming houses are common in the neighbourhood of St. Luke’s Anglican Church, which houses St. Luke’s Table in its basement. Many of the people who come to St. Luke’s Table live in rooming houses, though some sleep on the street or in shelters. The program’s clientele is largely made up of people who are on social assistance or disability support.
“If you’re on social assistance, you’re on a very low income. It’s almost impossible to survive. So that’s why people come here to get food to supplement their incomes.”
On a typical day, about 100 people come to St. Luke’s Table for breakfast, and around 150 for lunch. The program is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and functions as a drop-in. “There’s no barrier to accessing the resources here, which is really important,” says Robinson.
“Our real mission is to provide basic needs to people, which is food, personal care items like toiletries,” she says. “But then we do what I think is really important as well, [which] is we provide community for people. We break social isolation.”
Social programming—from bingo and karaoke parties to informally hanging out with a cup of coffee or playing cards—is an important part of what St. Luke’s Table offers, Robinson says.
Nurses and social workers from the Royal Ottawa Hospital also offer mental health and addiction services twice weekly, and once a week a community chaplain provides spiritual care.
The drop-in is a community ministry of the diocese and runs as a social service organization. When it began decades ago, it was St. Luke’s Lunch Club—volunteers handing out lunch to those in need.
Many St. Luke’s parishioners have been volunteering for years, and the program has a close relationship with the church, sometimes holding joint events. Some of the people who come to the drop-in have begun attending services, she says.
“It’s a shared space, and we see the church as the sort of stewards of the space,” says Robinson. The program makes a financial contribution to cover its costs, including heating, utilities and kitchen appliances. “It’s a really mutually…beneficial partnership, because we wouldn’t be able to rent a space like this anywhere else in the city—we’re right in downtown Ottawa, so you can imagine it’s expensive. We wouldn’t be able to rent a place like this, a space this big, but equally then we’re contributing to the costs of the building, the maintenance and the running of the building for the church.”
St. Luke’s Table is one of three drop-in day programs that are church-housed community projects run by the diocese of Ottawa. Robinson is also executive director of The Well, a drop-in program in St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, which serves women.