Winter clothing donations at ‘crisis level’ for people leaving custody

An Ottawa police officer who collects clothes and money to give to people being released from custody says supplies have reached a “crisis level.”

Special Const. Susanne Kelly has offered winter clothing at the Ottawa Courthouse on Elgin Street for more than 20 years. 

“When prisoners were being released, they were coming to court from jails, not properly clothed,” she said.

People arrested in summer or at night often aren’t prepared to be released into cold weather. 

Kelly collects donations from others working at the courthouse, including lawyers and judges, to be given to people if they need it. 

She said right now there is a heightened need for donations.

“It’s at a point where it’s at a crisis level,” she said. “People are just not donating like they were.”

She said there is a particular need for men’s ski jackets and men’s winter boots.

Work seen as a ‘lifesaver’

Anyone wanting to donate can drop items off at the Ottawa Courthouse. Some local defence lawyers are also accepting donations at their offices.

Michael Spratt, an Ottawa-based defence lawyer who is accepting donations on Kelly’s behalf at his office, called her efforts a “lifesaver” because the criminal justice system disproportionately deals with people who live in poverty and have mental health or addiction problems.

“You can walk out of jail or out of court, having been … found not guilty of doing anything wrong and having had your liberty taken away at the hands of the state, and literally be released into the depths of an Ottawa winter without a coat on your back,” he said. 

He said Kelly’s work is “essential” because it pools community resources to make sure people being released from jail don’t freeze.

Kelly also collects cash donations to buy bus tickets to give to people being released into the community. 

Spratt says there should be legislation or funding to support this type of work.

“Releasing people without appropriate clothing, and in the dead of winter, is a failing. It’s an indictment of the current social safety nets and it’s amazing that someone has stepped up to sort of fill that gap,” said Spratt. 

“But we shouldn’t need to rely on one individual to fill that gap. We should be collectively doing more as a community.”

Someone walks down a snowy sidewalk on a side street in a city.
Ottawa’s average temperature in January, measured from 1981 to 2010, was about -10 C. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Peter Tilley, CEO of the Ottawa Mission, said many local organizations are “overrun by the amount of newcomers coming into the country [like] refugees [and] asylum seekers, about to face their first Canadian winter.”

He said there has been a scramble to get proper footwear and clothing together and is thankful for Kelly’s work helping people coming out of custody. 

“Hopefully we as a community can always meet the need for those who need to reintegrate back into society,” he said. 

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