Formerly Homeless Ottawa Youth Now Advocates for Street Youth

Ollie - formerly homeless youth

Ollie Mcloughlin is not your average nineteen-year-old. No, there is nothing simple about their story, nothing basic about their journey, and nothing average about the incredible young person that they have become.

Ollie is firing on all cylinders as a determined college student and overnight homeless shelter support worker on the front lines of youth homelessness in Canada’s capital region. Determined to make a difference and collaborate in meaningful ways with other activists, Oliver dedicates their young life to be the change they wish so much to see. Parlaying their real-life lived experiences into employment in public service, the future is bright for them.

But it was not always this bright.

“I left home in my teens as I was living in a volatile household. My mother, my sibling, and I all suffered from very severe mental health challenges and disorders; at the time, these were all untreated,” Ollie explained.

“Growing up, I was a caretaker for everyone in my family, regardless of the hurtful ways they treated me. Eventually, I realized I could not be the one to save everyone. And I needed to do something to save myself. I was unable to keep up with the explosive rage, the abandonment, and the constant mental health crisis,” Ollie admitted.

“I did not feel safe at home anymore. A friend who was in a similar situation and I planned to leave home together,” explained Ollie. “This is what first lead me to be in a position where I was homeless.”

Wise beyond their years at just nineteen, Ollie explained that their experiences began at an alarmingly young age and saw them stuck in a homeless void for over three years.

“I first became homeless at 15 years old, and my experiences on the streets were on and off again until the age of 18,” Ollie said.

When asked to share their main takeaways from that tumultuous experience on the streets of Ottawa, Ollie explained that it was a heartbreaking saga.

“I learned that most people do not show empathy for homeless youth. It felt like I had all these negative labels put on me for being homeless. I experienced having staff at the shelters I stayed at complain to our faces about the mental health challenges we faced. This was painful to me in my formative years. I felt like an imposition. It was as if our disorders and challenges were bigger issues for them than they were for those of us experiencing this turmoil firsthand.”

“This is not to say all staff was that way. Some shelter workers genuinely made me believe that I had worth and potential as a human being,” recalled Ollie.

“In the simple ways that they showed they cared, taking time to have conversations with you, respecting when you did not want to talk, and supporting you during rough times. It was staff like that who inspired me to finish high school and attend college for the child and youth care diploma program,” explained Ollie with pride.

Somewhere between their shelter stays and their educational coming of age, Ollie was able to secure proper housing. Now living in community housing, Ollie experiences firsthand some of the obstacles existing within non-profit housing neighborhoods. Despite those obstacles, Ollie is proud to celebrate their resilience. In just a few short years, they were able to overcome so many obstacles. And the gratitude they describe seems immeasurable.

“I feel deeply and truly fortunate to have a roof over my head, and for the first time in my life, have housing stability,” Ollie said.

“The biggest downside to community housing is the obvious lack of care for the buildings themselves,” Ollie explained discerningly.

“For example, I live in a building that has 21 floors. It is home to hundreds of people with varying accessibility needs. And I frequently see that either one or both of our elevators are broken. This makes the building itself inaccessible to many people who live in it that have physical disabilities.”

“It is beyond frustrating that once again, even in secure housing, I am seeing how many just do not care about the lives of poor people! So many tasked with supporting tenants believe that people who live in community housing are bad and lazy! I am always disappointed by how many will not take the time to understand the reality of why we live in community housing in the first place and the barriers so many are still facing.”

Ollie never shies away from standing up for their beliefs.

Advocating for others is a fundamental ingredient of their persona, whether standing on picket lines, organizing donations, working on the front line, or challenging the systems right under their roof. When asked about what the next steps in their journey look like, the sky was the limit.

“Right now, my main goal is to graduate college and further my career working with youth. I currently work at a youth shelter. I hope to continue working with young people who also have experienced or are experiencing homelessness,” Ollie explained.

“In the future, I would also like to expand my career to working in harm reduction with young people who use substances. I feel like my lived experience can be beneficial in reaching people.”

Openly identifying as non-binary, Ollie speaks passionately about their gender rights activism.

“I find my activism usually surrounds trans peoples’ human rights,” they explained. “But I do not limit my activism to just one cause worth fighting for. Harm reduction and housing rights are fundamental to me, too. In the past, I have done activism both within and outside of formal organizations. I think the root of my activism is simply a belief that everyone should have access to necessities such as food, shelter, health care, and safety. I distinctly believe that everyone should be able to live freely as their most authentic self.”

There were many takeaways for Ollie from their time on the streets of the large urban landscape of Ottawa. Expressing an innate desire to remember their journey while celebrating their destination, Ollie jumped at a chance to speak to a larger audience. When asked what they would say to another person who struggles as they did, Ollie had wisdom to bestow.

“My main takeaway from being a street youth was learning to care for myself. It isn’t an easy lesson, and it did not come without hardships and mistakes along the way,” Ollie said. “Yes, this includes being able to find and access necessities. But it also includes really caring about my well-being. I learned the hard way that I cannot let people take advantage of me or use substances to run away from my past. I cannot let what others think of me keep me stuck in one place.”

Ollie continued: “I learned that no one is going to save me. I had to figure out how to love who I am enough to want to save myself. Some are not so lucky.”

As the weight of the question bared down on them, Ollie began to feel the weight of their words.

Choosing their next ones carefully, they departed with some universal statements that ring true in the world of homelessness support and prevention.

“I would want to tell them that they matter,” Ollie explained. “Even when they have been traumatized or use unhelpful coping skills, they deserve to be loved. And when it feels like systems try to hold them down, they deserve to be admired for their will to fight. When it feels like no one gives a damn about them, I still do. And so do many others.”

“They still matter. And we all deserve good things to happen for us. We all deserve stability, safety, and comfort.”

Ollie knows that what we deserve does not always match with what life deals us. Ollie’s final words ring true and command respect.

“Stand your ground and do not let anybody make you feel like a lesser human being. You have so much to offer the world.”

And the world needs more people like Ollie. The sky might be the limit, but their courage and strength of character are well far and beyond any limit that exists before them. It takes people like them to smash the systems of oppression and break down the walls that keep us confined to the stereotypes.

As Ollie has demonstrated, one person can change the world in extraordinary ways. But they will be the first to tell you – it might take a little help from you, too.


Leigh Bursey

Leigh Bursey

        

Leigh Bursey is a 35 year old resident of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Canada. Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, Leigh spent over twenty years in Ontario, where he was a three term former municipal councillor. Leigh is an International Best-Selling Author, an award-winning singer/songwriter and recording artist, actor, painter, and community organizer/policy advocate. Leigh is the co-founder of the Brockville Streetfriends and current lead for the Mount Pearl Streetfriends outreach networks. He is an International Chartered Housing Professional, a shelter worker, and a former provincial Housing Officer. Leigh is a board member for the Canadian Housing Renewal Association and the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness, and the LivEx Scholars With Lived Experience through Making The Shift. Leigh is a newlywed and a first-time homeowner. Leigh has lived experience with homelessness.

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