By Jessica Lovell
People of all descriptions pass through the doors of 40 Baker Street. They are young and old, fat and thin, male, female, transgendered, wearing golf shirts or baggy T-shirts, but each seems to pass through the door with the comfort of being at home.
“We manage the way a family manages,” says Ed Pickersgill, of the three organizations that share the downtown address.
Pickersgill heads up the Abbeyfield Houses Society of Guelph, which sponsors Fresh Start Housing Centre, Our Place Youth Centre and the Baker Street Art Gallery. The group of organizations grew up organically to meet needs in the community, he said.
It started with Fresh Start, an organization which at one time, received government funding to provide housing services, such as helping people to find housing, helping them to fill out applications for non-profit housing, or helping with landlord-tenant disputes.
“I help them, if I can, or I send them somewhere where they can help them,” says Jack Schweitzer, who has been in charge of Fresh Start for more than a decade.
He is at the centre Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ready to help people with whatever it is they need, be it legal help or help knowing where to look for an apartment. He even helped a woman with her divorce once, he says.
Many of the people who come to the centre suffer from mental illness or addiction, some are homeless, others have come from jail, but Schweitzer is happy to be there to help all of them.
“People just want to be listened to,” he says. And he does listen.
Schweitzer says being available throughout the week and having a live person to pick up the phone is important for Fresh Start. “We answer the phone; you can call and someone will talk to you,” he says.
The art gallery was the next to develop. With a number of people frequenting the centre interested in creative pursuits, the gallery developed naturally, says Pickersgill. “It just put down roots and just grew,” he says. It is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and paint, brushes and canvas are all supplied, so that the youth and adults who frequent the centre can engage in creative activities.
The youth centre also had a somewhat organic beginning. It came along to fill a need in the community that arose when Change Now closed without explanation in June 2007.
The kids from Change Now were given some space at the centre and they kept coming back, viewing it as a safe place where they could be themselves and would not be judged, explains Alison Cardow, who now heads up the youth centre.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a punk, a hippie or a gangster . . . They can come here and they’re not judged,” says Cardow. “The only rule I have here is respect.”
The youth centre is open from Monday to Friday, from 1 to 7 p.m. It has computers, a drum kit, art supplies, a kitchen and a floor-to-ceiling shelf packed with second-hand books. It’s a place where young people can hang out, get a meal, get off the street and get help if they need it.
“If I can’t help them, I can send them to someone who can,” says Cardow, who some of the kids refer to as Mom. “Or they talk to each other.”
For the past several years, these three organizations have operated largely on the fringe, funding operations through donations and rental income from the other organizations that also call 40 Baker Street home. It is somewhat hesitantly that they are now trying to raise their profile in the community, in an effort to drum up public support and become more financially sustainable.
The organization is holding a walk-a-thon, which it’s calling “Some Steps in the Right Direction: A Walk for 40 Baker Street,” on Aug. 13 at 10 a.m.
The event “is as much awareness raising as fundraising,” says Angela Van Arragon, who is helping to promote the event and the organization.
Because 40 Baker Street does tend to operate on the fringe, “to actually be front and centre is a little harder,” she said.
But more than raising funds, the walk-a-thon is also an effort to let people know what the organizations do and to let people know that they are there for those who need them.
As Cardow says, “I’d like more youth to realize we’re here.”
The event will include a free barbecue for participants and volunteers following the walk. For more information about the event, to make a donation, or to learn more about 40 Baker Street, visit 40bakerstreet.org.