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Is there going to be any change? Now?

Friday, September 28, 2007

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Written by andrea k. bennett and Bob Przybyla

It has been over three months since the sudden and as-of-yet unexplained closure of a local youth shelter and drop-in centre, Change Now. All that is known is that the board of directors decided to close the shelter without outside warning. Despite its sudden closure, Morris Twist the director of the United Way Guelph, stated that the decision was long considered and took 6 months to conclude.

On Monday, September 17, community members, service providers, and representatives from the United Way met for a presentation of the Community Task Force on Programming for At-Risk Youth. The Task Force, created in July, had two months to gather information and present a framework outlining the goals and requirements for a new shelter and drop-in centre. The framework, presented to a full house at St. Stanislaus School, touched on many of the same points as were brought up in the Community Forums held in late July. A central location, with distinct spaces for the shelter and drop-in components, was highlighted alongside concerns like the need for on-site provision of health services, steady meals, job preparation programs, ID clinics, and non-biased sex education, among other things.

While the framework (and the work of the Task Force itself) seemed to be welcomed by most present at St. Stanislaus, the room remained tense. Matt Bresee, a youth who has been organizing since the closure of Change Now, said the tension in the room was reminiscent of the meetings that took place directly after the closure of Change Now.

It's not surprising, as many of the same fundamental questions surrounding the shelter's closure still remain. Some, like Ed Pickersgill from Fresh Start Housing, feel like the closure was "shrouded in secrecy." In an email communication that Ed sent out on September 15th, the three-month anniversary of the closure, Ed also raised the point that Roya Rabbani, head of the Community Task Force, was on the Board of Change Now at the time of its closure. I asked Ed what message he thought it sent that Roya was on the Board and now head of the Task Force; he replied, "in my opinion the entire community process is compromised," adding that the end may justify the means if a new shelter opens up in the near future.

When asked about how she navigated her position as head of the Task Force when she was recently on the Change Now Board, Roya asserted that she'd had very limited involvement with the Board, focussing on fundraising, and that she had resigned for personal reasons. She asserted that she didn't have any involvement in or knowledge of the reason for the closure, and that she felt her presence on the Task Force was not a conflict of interest. It is odd, however, that she did not acknowledge this herself.

As for when the new shelter will open, Morris Twist, the Head of the United Way, asserted that they'd "get this thing going as soon as we can." The United Way will soon be releasing a Request For Proposals (RFP) for a new shelter and/or drop-in centre. The deadline for proposals will be Oct. 5th, and the new space(s) will hopefully be set to open by the end of November.

Proposals for a new space will most likely come from existing organizations in the Guelph and Wellington area. In order to receive funding, an initiative must incorporated, and must have charitable status. This means that community members and former staff members who have been organizing to help meet the immediate needs of youth after Change Now's closure will probably not have the chance to submit their own proposal. Several audience members took issue with the fact that they are already providing services for youth. They provide these services out of a desire to help and would greatly benefit from funding, but they have no avenue by which to receive funding.

Since the closure, many community members have stepped up to provide services that were needed before, and even more so after Change Nowís closure. Most of the organizing centered around Fresh Start at 150 N. Wyndham. One such initiative is named ìOur Placeî which is taking root at Fresh Start. According to Ed Pickersgill, ìOur Place was a response not to the closing of Change Now but rather to the needs of young people who were coming here anyway before and after the closure.î He went on to say that ìThe defining feature of what's happening here at 150 Wyndham is whatever it would be, the kids would be able to see that they could say ëthis is our placeë.î

Mark Rodford, of the Conerstone and taskforce member, was able to provide some insight on the current situation and why emotions are still running high over three months after the fact. ìI think there's a void in this community because people were never given a proper forum to talk about the closure; Change Now was gone, all of a sudden, and on top of that, there was nobody left for people to express themselves to [as the Board members all resigned and kept a low public profile].î Mark went on to add that ìthe Community Task Force meetings have provided a forum,î and that he understands peoples' frustrations as there's a massive need in the community and currently nothing to fill it.

Former Change Now staff member Jonny Salerno also had something to say about the presentation of the Task Force. ìI am not surprised by anything I saw and heard tonight. The Task Force had a specific mandate and they delivered it to the community and now we have to see who steps up to deliver.î When asked about whether or not former staff were going to present a proposal, or start an initiative with the aid of an existing organization, Jonny said that "the idea of a youth centre had been floated around at community meetings," but that "there hasn't been discussion of it since, especially since the opening of 'Our Place.'" When asked if he was optimistic Johnny had a somber response: "truthfully, no. At least not for the short term."

The nights are starting to get colder and the deadline for proposals is still coming. The big question is, will there be a new youth shelter open before the snow falls?

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