Future List 2022: Sahada Alolo fosters connections in the fight against homelessness
People & Places

Future List 2022: Sahada Alolo fosters connections in the fight against homelessness

Housing is a perennial hot topic in Ottawa, but what you bring to the conversation depends on your vantage point. Sahada Alolo is positioned to see it from many sides.

“There is always the issue of ‘not in my backyard’ when you are trying to develop affordable housing in areas where they have million-dollar homes,” she says. “There’s the sense that social housing devalues property. Research has not found that to be true, but the perception exists.”

As part of her role as manager of community engagement and volunteers at the Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI), Alolo leads the community consultations that take place before affordable housing is built. “We say, ‘We’re going to be here to stay, and we invite you to become a part of it. See how we do things and your perception will change.’”

So, does it change? Alolo says it takes time — and a good mixer does wonders to break down barriers, as was the case at a recent Barrhaven gathering. “When neighbours and tenants mingle, they realize they are not that different from one another. Wherever we go, we build a relationship with the community first and invite people in — that way they see that we keep our properties clean and maintained.”

Still, stigma is sticky and contrasts are stark. If you are a homeowner with equity and house prices are on the upswing, your wealth increases. But for those lower-than-average income, it can be a struggle to find a place to call home. And while many politicians will say they support an increase in affordable housing stock, there is a difference between the talking and the doing. “That’s where we get stuck,” Alolo says. 

Being stuck without housing can be the start of a long unravelling. “It’s the beginning of everything: an address, a phone number, and a place you can call home. And that home gives you the stability to tap resources within your community to ensure your general well-being.”

This is where housing and mental health intersect, something Alolo is focusing on while seconded to the Ottawa Guiding Council for Mental Health and Addictions, an alliance of community, health, and service networks. Their goal? To develop a pilot program to respond to mental health and addictions crises in Ottawa. They have been looking closely at the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program — known as CAHOOTS — in Eugene, Oregon. It mobilizes two-person response teams that include a medic and a crisis worker, as an alternative to police action. She says the strategy needs to be informed by those most affected. When we meet, Alolo comes to the café from a day of walking around core neighbourhoods to ask unhoused people about where they go when they are in crisis so she can better understand the gaps in the system.

Left: Sahada Alolo. Portrait by Christian Lalonde.
Right: Connie Weatherston, Sahada Alolo, Mara Watson, and Lorna Buchanan get festive at a Christmas gathering for MHI staff and volunteers in December 2021

In those gaps, much is revealed. Alolo’s work is about breaking cycles of homelessness not only with bricks and mortar, but also through social glue.

For example, at MHI, a volunteer is assigned to each home — the organization owns 179 housing units that are home to between 300 and 400 people. The volunteer checks on tenants, fosters relationships, and works to understand the family dynamics. They also help with paperwork related to housing and employment, and link tenants to community programming.

“We are building communities so that people have connections with others,” Alolo says. “That is where the multi-faith aspect comes in — we want to build an inclusive community where people respect the differences among us. When you have that, you can see how people have each other’s backs and, as a result, fewer people fall through the cracks. By sharing common struggles, interests, and opportunities, people build trust.”

That trust is also built through food and gatherings. “When it’s Christmas time, we don’t call it a ‘holiday party’ — we call it what it is, which is a Christmas party and we invite our Christian members to come break bread and lead an educational component,” Alolo says. “When it’s time for Eid, we bring in someone from the mosque to educate and the same goes for Passover, among many other religious gatherings. It really breaks down barriers that can be artificial or due to ignorance. We learn about each other’s cultures and how people live their faith.”

Those collaborative principles are at the heart of Veterans’ House, MHI’s 40-unit supportive housing project for veterans on the former Rockcliffe air base that provides physical and mental health services as well as substance-use recovery programs. In the works is an MHI project with the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa that will see affordable units built on Merivale Road. At the LeBreton Flats site, MHI will work with developer Dream Asset Management; it will own 130 affordable units in a new 601-unit building slated for occupancy in 2026.

That’s a few years off and the demand for affordable housing is great, which is something that looms large for Alolo.

“When I first came here, I couldn’t understand why people would be homeless in a country as rich as Canada,” she says, still a bit baffled. Alolo grew up in Tamale, Ghana, went to university in Cape Coast, Ghana and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to do her master’s, followed by a doctorate in education at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She came to Canada more than 20 years ago with her husband. They are now raising three sons here.

Our conversation turns to rising hate, polarization, and Islamophobia. Alolo is proactive in her stance. “It is the small voices that are the loudest and they are taking up the space,” she says.

To take back some of that space, Alolo serves as president of the Ottawa Muslim Women Network, which was formed in response to post-9/11 backlash. “We realized we needed to drive the narrative, rather than sitting back and letting people tell us that what happened represents Islam.” The group hosts charitable events to support different organizations and friendship dinners with people of other faiths and genders to build bridges.

“You would think that by now the group’s premise would not be needed as much,” she reflects. “The idea was that, as a result of coming together and telling our stories, things will change. But as we know, it seems to be getting worse. It shows that we have to be more committed than ever, because the hate is there, but it’s not what defines what we know to be Canada.” That work extends through Alolo’s other volunteer responsibilities as co-chair of the Community Equity Council of the Ottawa Police, co-chair of the Canada for Africa Group, executive member of the African Canadian Association of Ottawa, and board member of the Snowsuit Fund.

The list of commitments is long. Alolo jokes about wearing many hats — er, hijabs — in the community. Wait, what does she do for fun? Alolo smiles. Life is starting to shift. Her kids are older and more independent. The parks, museums, and extracurricular activities that took up the free hours are leaving time for events and galas. She likes to dress up when the occasion arises, to spend time with her close circle, and to look to the future. Her fiftieth birthday is on the horizon and, taking inspiration from Serena Williams, she is looking at “evolving” instead of “retiring,” she says with a laugh. I ask about her interest in public office, but the constraints of party politics aren’t particularly appealing. 

“I have a passion for helping people,” she says. Retiring — or evolving — for Alolo means growing her non-profit, called Northern Girl Initiative, to help girls become a catalyst for change in their communities. She is interested in counselling work, too. “Having worked as a community developer for a very long time, I see that sometimes all that people need is someone who will listen,” she says.

“It makes a huge difference. Sometimes, solutions are not that complicated. It takes us being compassionate, being there for one another, and just being human.”