By Andrea Gardner
Jewish Family Services of Ottawa
Jewish Family Services of Ottawa (JFS) lost a friend, a colleague and an advocate for street-involved people in our Jewish community and the broader Ottawa community when Pete Cassidy passed away, November 8, from natural causes at age 54.
Cassidy was a perfect advocate. He knew all too well the life of a street-involved person with addictions. Those were his roots.
Pete was introduced to JFS Executive Director Mark Zarecki 15 years ago by Natalie Gussman.
A number of Jewish people with street involvement felt there was a need for a Jewish presence for Jews on the street, and Gussman and her crew approached Zarecki to advocate for JFS to support a street outreach program.
At the time, Cassidy had been clean for just one year from an addiction and was living in a recovery house. Prior to his recovery, he’d spent his days and nights injecting drugs and living on the street in Ottawa. After waking up in a jail cell one morning, charged with attempted murder (he was not convicted) after a drug-filled night he had no memory of, Cassidy walked into detox, went into rehab and made a commitment to give back to those he had spent so much time taking from.
In 2001, the conversation began between Zarecki and Cassidy about helping Jewish street-involved people and the broader street population. A consensus was reached. Cassidy was pleased JFS was not evangelizing and this appealed to him as many of the religious outreach groups operating on the streets were intent on converting people.
Coming from the Yiddish term sachele fun (street wise), the JFS StreetSmarts program was born with Pete as the team leader and, more importantly, its soul. He knew what the homeless needed and he reached out every day to Ottawa’s homeless and street-involved, providing crisis intervention, advocacy, referrals and essential items – including non-judgmental support – to those hardest to serve. Cassidy kept to his word and created the Jewish street presence in Ottawa.
To the homeless, Cassidy was often their only friend and the only person who would reach out and hug them. He believed in all people regardless of where they were or what they had done. He believed each homeless person deserved respect and deserved to be hugged. A hug from him was no small thing as the homeless are feared and often have no physical contact.
For many in the community, he was the link between family members and their son or daughter living on the streets.
For the mayors, city counsellors and funders, and for the concerned people who accompanied him on his nightly outreach walks, he would share the reality of the vulnerable, the addicts and the indigenous who survived on the fringes of the community. He wanted to make a difference, and he did. He did that quietly, consistently and without the need for recognition for 15 years.
Pete Cassidy’s work had an impact on all who met him. His passion for street outreach and his larger-than-life presence have left a lasting impression on the homeless community of Ottawa and with all who worked with him.
“The next time you see somebody who is homeless, just remember that person could be your son or your daughter, or your mother or your father, or your grandparent. More importantly, it could be you,” he said. “That’s the reality. It doesn’t take much to become homeless.”