The housing crisis facing Greater Victoria, record high inflation and pandemic fallout are all contributors as to why so many people have nowhere to call home aside from the streets of Victoria.
Niki Ottosen, the founder of the Backpack Project is trying to improve the lives of those who sleep rough by meeting where they are at and giving them the tools to make their day-to-day lives a bit easier.
Ottosen is a gardener by trade who used to work for the city. While she was going about her workday, which was primarily outdoors, she wound up seeing and interacting with several houseless Victorians in parks and green spaces throughout Victoria.
She graciously saw them as equals and the fact that they had so little was upsetting, so Ottosen set out to do something about it.
About 13 years ago she created the Backpack Project with the help of her husband and daughter to hand out backpacks that were filled with some essential necessities that would make life a little easier.
“I thought, ‘how can I help?’” Being a gardener, I know what it’s like to be cold and wet all day long, so I decided that a backpack full of necessities might be useful, the way I carry a backpack around when I’m working,” Ottosen told Victoria Buzz.
“I started filling backpacks with those necessities and comfort items. I started out with 10 backpacks. My husband, my daughter and I went downtown and handed them out.”
“The people that received them were just so grateful. It just made a really huge impression on my family and I.”
“The next year I did 20 and the following year I did 40. Right before COVID happened, I did 200 with the help of the community,” remarked Ottosen.
Throughout the pandemic, Ottosen began putting her focus on volunteering her time as an independent mutual aid provider for those camping in Beacon Hill Park and the Cook Street care encampment.
She pivoted to ‘boots on the ground’ outreach because according to Ottosen, at the beginning of the pandemic some shelters had to shut their doors for about two weeks while they navigated how to serve their community in a safe way in regards to COVID-19.
Grant McKenzie, Director of Communications for Our Place Society told Victoria Buzz that their drop-in services were only affected for one afternoon to implement COVID-19 safety protocols.
McKenzie says that their drop-in services were open from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., 365 days a year, including throughout the pandemic.
Ottosen jumped into action during this time to help the houseless community in which she became so close to through the years.
“I started asking for donations from my supporters,” Ottosen told Victoria Buzz.
“I would take my wagon and I would go out once a week and I would hand out food in the park and on Pandora Street.”
“It was heartbreaking to see how many people were forgotten about in our city.”
This is when Ottosen transitioned from focussing her time and effort from the Christmas backpacks to outreach.
Nowadays, Ottosen focusses her time on getting supplies to the community as they are needed, rather than collecting it until the holiday season. She said they haven’t done a big Christmas backpack drop in about three years now.
Ottosen has partnered with SOLID Outreach and other local mutual aid outreach organizations to help her take on the Christmas time the Backpack Project distribution.
“It’s changed a bit, but [The Backpack Project] is a campaign I still do just at Christmas time,” said Ottosen. “SOLID is going to be making up Christmas gifts this year with my backpack donations and handing them out at Christmas time.”
SOLID handles the distribution of Christmas donations to the houseless community, but they just give them out as gift packs because backpacks are too expensive.
“The thing is backpacks are really hard to get nowadays. When I first started I could go to Staples after the back to school sales in October and I could get really nice backpacks for $3 each.”
“Now, if I have to order them off amazon, they’re $5 each and so thin that they break right away.”
Slowly but surely, Project Backpack has set up Christmas donation stations at most of the 13 municipalities in Greater Victoria.
“I just started writing emails asking them to participate and the first year I got seven municipalities on board, the next year nine, last year it was 12 and this year we’re hoping for 13.”
Currently all municipalities will have a drop-off station at their municipal hall near Christmas time except View Royal, who Ottosen is hopeful will partner with her this year now that there is a new mayor.
Anyone wishing to help or donate can follow the Backpack Project on Instagram and make donations to their local municipality.
Ottosen said the five most needed items that the houseless community need are:
- New or gently used tents
- Long-johns/long underwear
- Hand warmers