The Ottawa Mission was a completely different world when Diane Morrison first arrived as a volunteer in 1990.
Beacon Hill resident Diane Morrison has retired after 20 years as the administrator and executive director of the Ottawa Mission. Morrison was the first female volunteer, employee and head of the shelter.
For one thing, it was a different world for Morrison, who had never encountered a panhandler or someone living on the streets during her upbringing in the Wakefield, Que., area. The male residents of the shelter hadn’t encountered someone like her, either. Morrison was the first woman to work at the shelter before she became its first female executive director.
Now, 20 years later, the Beacon Hill resident has come a long way from the days when the shelter’s clients wouldn’t talk to her. Now, they see her as sort of a mother.
On Jan. 9 as she prepared for her retirement the next day, Morrison reflected on how her influence has “softened” the Mission.
Morrison was working as a teacher in Chelsea and volunteering at the shelter when she decided to take a leave of absence from her job to run the shelter full-time for a year, which then turned into two years. At that point, there were no other volunteers, no donations, no treatment programs for the clients and just 17 employees – all men.
“The board didn’t know what to do. They always had men. They used to call me ‘dear,’” Morrison said. “It’s softened the place a lot.”
The men of the Mission wouldn’t give her the time of day when Morrison first began coming to scrub nicotine-stained walls. They eventually warmed up, thanks in part to the loose cigarettes Morrison would stock her pockets with and dole out to the men.
“They generally have a good relationship with their mom. They don’t always have a good relationship with their dad,” she said. “It’s kind of that whole nurturing role.”
One client Morrison really connected with was a man named Timmy. He was one of the first men with AIDS to arrive at the shelter, and Morrison provided a bed and a chance for his friends to visit him as he was dying.
“We had the funeral for him here,” Morrison said.
That defining moment in 2002 inspired Morrison to set up the first hospice for the homeless with 14 beds.
Morrison’s work completely changed the way shelters approached finances. In the 1990s, people simply didn’t donate money to places like the Mission, Morrison said.
“We were really strapped,” she said.
When she started out, the Mission had an annual income of $300,000. Now, the Mission takes in $8 million a year.
The first foray into fundraising was a $13,000 project to replace the Waller Street building’s roof. It leaked, so the shelter was unable to put any beds on the top floor. The roof had just been installed when a fire broke out on Christmas Eve of 1992. Firefighters had to smash a hole through the new roof to extinguish the flames and 70 men staying in the shelter that Christmas made their way to a nearby diner for some warmth and food.
“It was kind of a defining moment,” Morrison said. The fire made the national news and people began to recognize the Mission name for the first time.
A newspaper advertising campaign followed after a suggestion from a man from California. Money that began to trickle in allowed Morrison to create the first programs for Mission clients, such as addiction treatment programs.
Under Morrison’s tutelage, the Mission became the first local shelter to reach out to police and to the neighbouring community.
Now, officers can walk through the shelter and none of the clients blink an eye, Morrison said.
Neighbours are similarly nonplussed. There was some tension when crack cocaine use exploded in Ottawa about seven years ago and community meetings helped smooth over relations, Morrison said. This Christmas, residents moving into nearby condo buildings took up a large collection for the Mission and set up a tree with ornaments of socks and underwear to donate to the men.
“(One condo resident) said, ‘You’re our neighbours,’” Morrison said. “You’re our neighbours and we’re your neighbours and we have to learn to work together.”