(Retrieved from http://ottawacitizen.com/)
More than just a job
Marc Provost had a blossoming retail career in Vancouver when he realized he wanted more from his life.
“I was doing pretty well. Life was pretty easy,” said Provost. “But I wanted something more than just a job. I wanted to make a difference.”
Soon he was a front-line worker in shelter, taking a healthy pay cut to work with the homeless, the addicted, the abused and the downtrodden of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It was a calling to serve others that he had always felt in his life, but could no longer ignore.
“I loved it,” he says. “I knew immediately it was what I meant to be doing. I’ve never looked back.”
Canada's largest non-government social service provider
Now, 15 years later, Provost, 50, is the executive director of the Salvation Army’s Booth Centre in the ByWard Market. The Sally Ann is Ottawa’s — and Canada’s — largest non-governmental social service provider, concentrating its work on housing issues, emergency shelter and disaster response.
“It’s who we are,” Provost says. “It’s what we’re all about.”
Founded in England by an evangelical Christian, William Booth, the Salvation Army arrived in Canada in 1882 with its mission to provide “soup, soap and salvation” to the needy. Though it remains a Christian church today, the Salvation Army provides services to everyone. Most of its 130 or so employees, including Provost, are laypeople.
A Montreal native, Provost and his partner came to Ottawa in 2003 when he took a job with the Salvation Army as a front-line worker at the Booth Centre on George Street. After holding a number of positions with the army, rising from an on-call worker to a supervisor, he left to take a job with the City of Ottawa, overseeing its data collection on housing among other duties.
He returned to the Booth Centre in 2013 as its executive director. It was a difficult time. A divisive strike by staff had caused hard feelings. Even worse, his predecessor, Perry Rowe, had been fired and criminally charged after an audit found $240,000 had gone missing over a period of eight years.
It’s a topic that Provost is uncomfortable discussing. “It was a difficult time at the Booth Centre, no doubt about it. A lot of people were hurt,” he said.
Mr. Provost loves what the Army stands for
“But I loved the Salvation Army and I loved what it stands for. I knew I could do something about it.”
Part of that was reaching out to the community, ensuring the Sally Ann’s services mesh efficiently with the services offered by the city’s other faith-based social agencies: the Shepherds of Good Hope, the Ottawa Mission and Cornerstone shelter for women.
While the 248-bed men’s shelter on George Street is maybe the most public face of the Salvation Army (along with its Christmastime “kettle drive” fundraiser, which has behind its targets due, in part, to unseasonable weather) the agency also works to find affordable, decent accommodation for the homeless or vulnerable individual and families.
“There are a lot of people in Ottawa — and it’s easy not to notice them — who live on very low income and are very close to being homeless,” Provost said.
The Sally Ann takes a “housing first approach” to homelessness, reasoning that a safe shelter is the first and most pressing need for someone on the street.
“Try to imagine putting your life back together without a roof over your head,” he said. “Where do YOU go when you are stressed or in trouble? Home. It’s a safe place to be.”
The OBC offers a wide range of services
Once housed, the agency follows up with other support programs such as alcohol and drug addiction treatment, budgeting and financial counselling and job-hunting workshops. Sally Ann outreach workers make the rounds of the city’s rooming houses, helping match clients to the best accommodation they can find. The agency also runs a 24/7 line for landlords who may be having problems with tenants.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Provost said. “What we want to avoid is having people get evicted. We can’t just put anyone anywhere. It has to work for everyone.”
Another key service the Salvation Army provides is disaster response. When families are displaced by fires or floods, the Salvation Army is there to help find emergency accommodation. When Ottawa was locked down after the deadly shooting at the National War Memorial in October 2014, police called on the Sally Ann, which provided more than 500 meals to police and first responders who could not leave their duties.
Though the organization is a Christian church, it offers services to everyone, including spiritual support to those who want it, be they Christian or other faiths.
“It’s a church, but it functions just like any other social service provider. But we do believe in serving people in a loving, caring, open-minded non-judgmental way,” he said.
Provost gives the credit to the Booth Centre’s success to the people who work there and their willingness to move forward from the difficulties of the past. He knows the importance of publicity to help raise awareness about what the Salvation Army does.
“There are people out there who could use our services, but they don’t know about us,” he said. “That just breaks my heart.”