Change Now? five months later

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

  • Not much has changed...

    Not much has changed...

You might already be familiar with the familiar with the story of Change Now, a youth shelter and drop-in centre that served youths aged 13 to 24. Its doors were shut suddenly on June 15th as the result of a Board decision. Neither the youth who used the shelter nor the staff who worked there were warned in advance of the closure.

Five months later, the reason for the closure remains a mystery to the general public. Five months later, there's no new youth shelter.

Change Now received most of its funding from the United Way; the City of Guelph also contributed. WIth the shelter's closure came the promise that the funding would be held until a new shelter opened. The United Way put together a Steering Committee to examine the issues facing "at-risk youth" in Guelph, and held community forums to get feedback about what a new shelter should look like. The Committee developed a framework outlining criteria for a shelter and drop-in space; the United Way followed up by putting out a Request for Proposals.

A grassroots community response also cropped up after the closure. The youth organized immediately, holding several protests, petitioning to re-open Change Now, and addressing City Council. Former staff and a wide range of community members formed a loose group including a youth component and specific task-related committees. The group fundraised several hundred dollars, and began cooking meals immediately to replace the former youth shelter's dinner program. (A couple weeks later, the Norfolk St. United Church re-activated the food teams and began to provide dinners on the lawn. The Guelph Union of Tenants and Supporters still provides for the Sunday supper).

As the weeks passed by, it became apparent that the bureaucratic process involved in opening a new shelter and drop-in centre space was not going to produce immediate results. Youths with homes offered up their couches to others who were left without beds. Ed Pickersgill and Fresh Start Housing formalized the use of their basement as a drop-in centre, naming it "Our Place" and hiring Cindy, a former Change Now staff member. "Our Place" provides food and clothing, as well as a comfortable and welcoming environment. They've continued Change Now's art program and started a creative writing workshop.

There are pros and ons associated with the fact that "Our Place" and some of the other immediate community responses are grassroots efforts. On one hand, the efforts do not receive any funding from the United Way; on the other, their existence isn't threatened by the possibility of a unilateral decision to shut them down.

The United Way will only provide funding to registered charitable organizations. Because the process to register as a charitable organization is a lengthy one with several restrictions, it's not likely that any of the current grassroots efforts will have the chance to put together a proposal for the United Way in order to receive funding.

Unfortunately, the United Way process is currently at a standstill. They received one proposal from Wyndham House in early November to manage a shelter, but no one came forward with a proposal for a shelter space. Hot on the heels of that announcement, came an email communication from Ed Pickersgill, who referred to talk of re-opening a shelter in the basement of the Norfolk St. United Church, where Change Now was located. He quoted an unknown source who stated that "issues related to former staff may not be as much of a problem as previously thought."

Still later, the United Way announced that there wouldn't be sufficient funding to re-open a shelter this year - it appears that a large portion of the funding dried up with the closure of Change Now. Ed Pickersgill has offered to use $18,000 from the Abbeyfield Guelph Fund to cover a years' worth of rent to re-open the space at Norfolk St. United Church, hoping to see a new shelter open by December 1st. In a November 20th Guelph Mercury article, Debbie Bentley-Lauzon of Wyndham House called the donation a "nice gesture" but said that it wasn't an option, citing a remaining funding gap.

And that's where we're at. No one has held the former Board of Change Now accountable, and the community is left to speculate about why such a sudden closure was necessary, especially with no contingency plan in place. If you've kept your ear to the ground, you've probably heard a few vague statements or accusations, but no one is willing to come forward with the full story.

After the shelter's closure in June, myself and former volunteer art programmer Kaitlin Schwan began documenting the community response on film, using two handheld cameras. Interviews with former staff members, youth, community members, and the primary funder are combined with footage taken by youth to detail the community's reaction to the closure.

SCREENING: the film will be screened at a Kazoo show this Thursday, November 22nd at the e-bar. The film will start at 8:30pm, and donations will be given to "Our Place."

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