Bracha bags journey from Mitzvah Day to those in need
Christopher Johnson is on a ByWard Market street on a chilly, damp, February afternoon, approaching dozens of people. But he isn’t asking for anything – he’s offering.
“Would you like a bag?” Johnson asks young and old, some in wheelchairs and some clustered on the sidewalk in front of the Salvation Army Booth Centre.
More than 100 drawstring Bracha bags were assembled at the Soloway JCC during the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Mitzvah Day. They contained socks, granola bars, toothbrushes, juice boxes – and handwritten cards. All were eagerly accepted.
“When the kids come in on Mitzvah Day and write on the cards which go in the bags, it means a lot to the people receiving them,” said Johnson, who is the coordinator of Jewish Family Services’ StreetSmarts Outreach Program.
As recipients took out their cards and carefully read them, Johnson explained that Grade 1 and 2 pupils had written the messages.
“I’ve had people cry when they read them,” said Johnson.
As coordinator and the one-man staff of StreetSmarts, Johnson works outdoors most of the time.
“Getting wet is the worst,” he acknowledges. Along with dedicated volunteers, such as Simon Wright, StreetSmart’s weekend supervisor for the last three years, Johnson works on the street, offering resources, referrals and basic supplies to Ottawa’s downtown homeless population.
Johnson, 36, and Wright, 38, spoke kindly to all, knew many by name, and introduced themselves to new people, offering them a StreetSmarts business card with contact information should recipients need to reach out for help. “People are always coming and going.”
They said they’d look into it when someone asked about getting a sleeping bag or warm clothing. One man happily showed off the warm snow pants they had given him previously.
“We’re out here for everybody,” said Johnson. “If they say they need socks, we give them socks. We also do first aid and carry Naloxone kits that reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.”
Sometimes Johnson and Wright help get forms for people seeking to get into the housing registry for the Salvation Army, the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, or Shepherds of Good Hope.
The StreetSmarts program was started by Peter Cassidy in 2001. After Cassidy died in November 2014, Johnson carried it on.
“I took over because StreetSmarts helped me with my own addictions,” he said, “and I wanted to ensure the program continued helping people get through their social issues. That’s what we’re all about.”
Johnson says he “got clean” in 2004; Wright did in 2012. They say that their backgrounds enable them to “connect and to establish a relationship” more easily with those in the same situation.
Johnson has dozens of volunteers such as Wright who help with education programs and night direct outreach.
“I have some volunteers who have been with StreetSmarts for four years, and one woman has been with StreetSmarts for 10 years. Others have been volunteering on and off for years, and some people come in and out. A lot of volunteers have social issues and life experience.”
The StreetSmarts organization doesn’t receive government funding; it relies on donations of supplies and money to keep going.
“We need people out here making connections,” said Wright.
Johnson said he makes sure that the Bracha bags are distributed to those most in need as quickly as possible.
“While we focus on the square of Elgin and Bank Street, and the Market area and Vanier, every now and then we get a call to another part of the city.”
How to help beyond Mitzvah Day
On the street: Christopher Johnson of StreetSmarts says if you’re approached on the street, you don’t have to give people anything.
“What you can do is acknowledge them and say: ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ ”
In your car: Johnson says if you are approached in your car on a hot summer day, and you have extra bottles of water in your car, you can offer them.
Larger items: With larger items such as clothing or furniture, he advises that it’s best to donate them to an organization. “Research various organizations or call one of the outreaches and find out where you can donate items. With the Housing First program of the City of Ottawa, there is a high demand for furniture.”
StreetSmarts program: For more information or to help, please call the StreetSmarts direct line at 613-979-3387 or email email@example.com.
Fundraising event: All proceeds from a fundraising event called Lip-Sync for the Homeless will go to StreetSmarts outreach. Held in memory of Pete Cassidy, the event will be held
May 5 at the Bronson Centre; see www.petessparklefund.com for more.