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Connecting with the Community to Help Women in Need

Karen Fisk


In Hastings-Prince Edward the Elementary Teachers’ Federation Teacher Local (ETFO H-PE) has become more than an organization for its members – it is an integral part of the community. The ETFO office, known as Federation House, is a 150-year-old house purchased in partnership with OSSTF, District 29. It is located in a residential area and offers meeting space to the Labour Council, Workers’ Help Centre, United Way committees, affordable housing groups, political action groups, and many other organizations that assist the community. ETFO H-PE also supports local groups through charitable funding to Coats for Kids, United Way, People Helping People, women’s shelters, and food banks.

As a result of our central location and connection to many organizations, the ETFO H-PE local has become known for its willingness to work on community issues. This is what led Shawn Susan Doyle, a registered social service worker and facilitator of adult learning, to request a meeting with me last March. The meeting was the beginning of a unique undertaking to address the issue of women and poverty in Belleville. Shawn wanted to establish an outreach program directed at empowering marginalized women. “Downtown Chat” would involve reaching out to women who frequent Belleville’s downtown core. Women would be invited to a safe non-judgmental (downtown) environment where they could come together, talk about their hopes and dreams, and share their stories. Shawn would facilitate the program and help women recognize the skills and abilities they have acquired through life experience.

Support from ETFO

Intrigued by Shawn’s desire to learn more about how to help these women, I applied to ETFO provincial office for funding. As identified in its constitution, ETFO is committed to promoting social justice in the areas of anti-poverty, non-violence, and equity. This project fit these ideals to a T. The funding helped Shawn to carry out her investigation. For the next 32 weeks, she gathered assessment data. In November, when she was finished, a summary report of the project, Downtown Chat: A Community Scan of Marginalized Women in Downtown Belleville, was submitted to ETFO.

The results of Shawn’s work were overwhelming. The stories the report told were poignant and motivating. Shawn used her skills creatively to reach street-involved women. She approached them with respect and acceptance. She said she learned that what was required was “inclusive thinking and action and not a mentality of ‘us and them’. This group of people is not going away and are an important part of our community. An anti-bias inclusive ‘we’ attitude needs to be adopted by all service providers and members of our community in order to find solutions to problems experienced by street-involved women.”

Shawn found that “traditional outreach strategies have failed and new ways of reaching homeless, transient, and street-involved women had to be established and tested.” Education and support services must come to the street. Programs must be women-centred: that is, designed specifically for women.

A key partner identified in the report was the Organic Underground, a progressive, grassroots, downtown café. Founder Katharine Davis is a compassionate leader who lives social justice every day. She and her partners in the co-operative strive to address the needs of the downtown community and provide numerous programs and projects to help people combat isolation, inequity, and injustice. The Organic Underground offers women a safe space to meet. Here they receive free meals, shelter and street health advocacy services, and access to health care professionals, community resources, and information. Katharine Davis’s spirit and dedication have inspired many, including me.

Next Steps

The investigative work Shawn Doyle did identified a need for action. Her report advocated a not-for-profit women’s community centre for the downtown core, operated by community partners working together. It also saw street-involved women themselves as the key to success.
While many community partners indicated an interest in helping out, a more organized effort was required. In January ETFO H-PE’s equity and social justice committee sponsored and funded a community forum at a local church. Over 100 people attended to learn about “Downtown Chat.” Shawn presented her report and experiences. Katharine talked about the work already happening through the Organic Underground. Jody, a woman who has experienced life on the streets first-hand, related her story. I spoke about ETFO’s involvement and the federation’s commitment to addressing the issues of poverty and interest in finding ways to support children living in poverty.

Participants were challenged to consider their own perspectives on poverty, and to reflect and examine stereotypes and assumptions.

It was also time to consider next steps. Roundtable discussions looked at who was at the table. We considered the idea of creating a not-for-profit organization for the purpose of establishing a centre for women and children in downtown Belleville. We looked at barriers to initiatives and what individuals, organizations, or groups could contribute. There were many positive comments and creative ideas. There was overwhelming evidence of interconnectedness.

To maintain the momentum and synergy, regular communication has continued with the participants. Numerous community partnerships have been formed, with the Organic Underground as a flagship organization.

What’s next? Our small group continues to meet and plan. We are actively working toward finding sustainable funding sources and collaborative community partners who are willing to contribute to the creation and operation of a centre. Positive discussions with professionals experienced in creating not-for-profit workers’ cooperatives are under way. In the meantime staff at the Organic Underground are donating their time and are continuing to expand vital services and education to women, children, and youth in downtown Belleville.

In spite of the barriers and challenges, we are making progress: meetings happen, meaningful dialogue continues, and spirits are raised. There is joy and hope; there is vision and potential; there is dedication and community. As teachers and local leaders, we are a community. We know we need to continue to raise awareness of poverty and the importance of education in alleviating poverty. We are actively involved and we are making a difference.

Women's Stories

  • Because rent, hydro, and baby formulas are her priority, Lucinda’s food is limited to soda crackers, Mr. Noodles, and cereal (dry because there is no milk). When she is at the Organic Underground (OU), she has several “5s & 4s” (five sugars and four creams) in her coffee for energy. Her new apartment is small and clean, but her landlord took advantage of her by providing a refrigerator that was cracked on the inside with the insulation falling out and covered in black mould. In spite of her hardships, Lucinda says that without the help of Katharine and all the people at the OU she would not be here.
  • Miss Eva lives in an upstairs apartment in a building that often houses dangerous people in dangerous situations. She is elderly, on a fixed income, deaf, and very lonely. She is subjected to living among people with addictions, mental illness and violence, but these are her friends. She frequents the OU, where she is safe to sit down and enjoy her milk and toast. She needs the OU even more now because the city has removed the benches from Behrens Park, where Miss Eva and her friends used to meet and socialize in the mornings.
  • Lily, a woman suffering from addictions, is dependent upon her controlling and often violent partner for shelter and drugs. She spends the daylight hours in the downtown core where, in public view, she is relatively safe. She is able to get a drink of water at the OU when she experiences her bouts of vomiting and is alone on the street in the mornings. One day she was wearing a ski jacket in 27-degree weather. When asked if she would like help to take it off, she was afraid to because her partner insisted she wear it.
  • Nadine is working downtown but does not make ends meet and has multiple challenges. She also has relationship problems and is often in abusive relationships with men who take advantage of her good nature. The hydro and heat in the apartment where she has been living for the past eight years were cut off recently. Her friend next door ran an extension cord over to her house so she could have some heat. Her friend’s landlord found out and now she has been charged with theft.
  • Nevada spends much of her time on the street selling her hand-knit dish cloths. She is deaf and alone. She tells me she is bullied by her peers much of the time and says she doesn’t even let people know that she has a place to live because somebody would overpower her and move in. She said she has been trying to get another job washing dishes – she likes washing dishes. She was badly treated by her last employer and so she gave him attitude and he fired her. She knows she cannot give attitude if she expects to keep a job but it is hard when you are being abused in the workplace.

Adapted from:
“Downtown Chat – Phase One – A Community Scan of Marginalized Women in Downtown Belleville, Including Outcomes And Recommendations,” by Shawn Susan Doyle.
The women’s names have been changed.

To Learn More:
A copy of “Downtown Chat: A Community Scan of Marginalized Women in Downtown Belleville” can be viewed at News.
Information on the work of Shawn Susan Doyle is available at
The Organic Underground is located at 255 Front Street, Belleville.