January 17, 2017

Making a career out of helping people

Case Manager Michael Toffelmire Discusses What Work is Like at The Ottawa Mission

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work for a nonprofit organization that’s working to help people in need? How does a career in social services impact the community?

Michael Toffelmire joined The Ottawa Mission’s team in 2014 as one of several case managers. He works specifically with long-term shelter residents, while other case managers work with those experiencing homelessness out in the community, or with men who have recently been booked into the shelter.

His office is in the Client Services building, which is attached to the larger shelter. We caught up with Michael to learn about what it’s like to work at a shelter for men.

Tell us a little bit about your role at The Ottawa Mission.

My role is to work with men who have been at the shelter for a few weeks or more and may be here a little bit longer-term. I work with them on their specific goals, whether they need help with their finances, obtaining their ID, or getting connected with mental health services, housing supports, and getting connected to community supports.

Is there a set amount of time that you work with a single client?

Basically, I can work with them as long as they require the service, so there’s no set time limit to it. If they feel they have goals they want to work on, I’m here to help them for as long as they need.

How many clients are you generally working with at a time?

Each case manager on our team carries a pretty heavy caseload, and at any given time it will vary. Usually it’ll be around 30 to 35 people.

How do you stay on top of every client’s specific needs and keep track of where they are at?

I think I just approach it one step at a time—it’s pretty manageable and it’s exciting, too, when a client has a very challenging goal to work on. I kind of joke sometimes that we work as “private investigators” to figure out what services are available to them to help them meet their goals.

What does assessing a client’s needs look like?

We start by focusing on the clients’ priorities and their immediate needs. Then we begin the work to help them become more self-sufficient and independent. Every client’s path is different and takes its own amount of time.

How open are clients to the support you offer?

The services we offer are optional to clients. Because we’re a voluntary service, it is the individual’s choice to accept the assistance. I sometimes experience clients who have a difficult time asking for help, so I seek them out and meet with them in the hopes of connecting them to support and services. This is often well received and appreciated by them, since we try to make it as easy as possible to connect and help.

Once a person has accepted the support, it becomes a very positive experience to work on their objectives. It’s the most rewarding part to see success in their daily lives by achieving their own personal goals.

Do you put a lot of time into research?

Absolutely. Ottawa is a pretty diverse city in terms of what supports are available. For example, at The Mission, we have an array of services on hand which are accessible to people that come through our doors like Employment, Education, Housing, Addiction and Trauma, and Mental Health support.

Our community also offers a ton of resources which our clients can benefit from, or that we are missing. My goal is to research the best and most appropriate resources and to connect my clients to them. They might not know of these services or how to connect with them. I also want to make sure the resources will be a good fit for clients.

Do your clients ever have trouble getting here?

One of the biggest challenges that I find when a client has to travel for a service is transportation. Because of the affordability of travel in Ottawa, bus travel is expensive and, depending on a client’s source of income, they might not qualify for a bus pass.

Since many of The Mission’s clients live in the downtown area, it is usually more feasible to connect them with services that are within walking distance.

How do you deal with barriers to travel?

What I’ll try and do is remove that transportation barrier for them, like connecting them to services which are close by or Para Transpo. If there’s no other option available, I can temporarily provide them with bus tickets or whatever it is they need.

Are there any challenges you encounter on a regular basis, either personally or when it comes to working with clients?

I find one of the biggest challenges when helping clients is finding safe, affordable, and appropriate housing options within Ottawa. If somebody wants to move on from The Mission quickly, finding housing can be a huge barrier. We work hard with the services in the community with the hope that we can pool our resources to find housing for everyone, but it sometimes takes time and it can be difficult.

What are some housing barriers that are specific to Ottawa?

Besides the lack of safe, affordable housing that many communities across Canada deal with, we see men struggle to find housing in Ottawa because some landlords want student renters, or “female only” renters. That makes it very difficult for middle-aged people, and especially men, that are in that zone where they’re not young enough to qualify for student housing, or what’s being offered to students, and they’re not old enough for seniors’ housing. They can’t find anything that’s affordable.

Is there anything you’d like to share that people aren’t aware about The Mission?

I’ve heard from many people over the years that they don’t know what services are available at The Mission. Many people assume that we’re just a shelter and that we provide a warm place for people to stay for the night and a healthy meal, but the reality is, as our logo says, we’re “more than a shelter.” There are many services here that people can access, whether they’re staying at the shelter or not.

From the outside, we look like a couple of buildings, but on the inside there’s this heart and soul running throughout the place. We work really hard to lift the spirits of the people that are coming through our doors. We have front-line services, client services, food services, a healthcare team, volunteer services, addiction services, and we’re all working together to help people who need support in our community.

Our priority is our clients’ safety, well-being, and a move towards independence. I approach every client with a sense of hope and dignity. My hope is to inspire them to accept the help for a healthier and more satisfied life.

The Client Services building has an open-door policy during office hours, so anybody can walk in that needs help.

The staircases in client services is the first step in receiving services at our Ottawa shelter for men