Paula Cornell

Top 40 Under 40 2015

Photography Curtis Trent

Age: 26

Job Title: Program Manager at The Neighbour Centre

Why She’s Top 40: She is changing the way homeless people are helped in Edmonton, giving them not only the tools to better their situations, but also senses of their values.

If you could change one thing about Edmonton, what would it be? “It’s cliche to say, but I would change the housing issue [in Edmonton]. I think every neighbourhood needs to have affordable housing.”

Paula Cornell is challenging how charities approach homelessness. She explains that there are two philosophies: Relief, which involves collecting donations and handing them out; and development, which requires a lot more work.

“It’s about doing with rather than doing for,” Cornell says. “The relief approach has its place when helping people in disaster situations, but when you try to help the homeless with it, it creates an ‘us and them’ barrier that doesn’t address many of the root causes.”

Cornell is the program manager at The Neighbour Centre, a drop-in resource centre for Edmonton’s homeless at 104th Street and 72nd Avenue. This is an area with an increasing homeless population but, until recently, it wasn’t included in Edmonton’s homeless count.

The Neighbour Centre sees 60 to 80 visitors a day. The programs Cornell has helped initiate at the centre stem from her time working at The Mustard Seed downtown, where she saw firsthand what works and what doesn’t. The programs Cornell has set up at the centre are aimed at removing the barriers and have community volunteers working side-by-side with those in need.

The most successful program is the Dinner Club, where, once a week, visitors and volunteers prepare a meal together, demonstrating to the visitors that the homeless have value and can contribute.

Cornell says that the small successes are what help keep her motivated to help Edmonton’s homeless. Her efforts extend far beyond The Neighbour Centre, though, into her volunteer work with organizations such as Food for the Hungry, where she educates on global root causes of poverty, and #JusticeYEG, an annual conference where different organizations talk about issues centred on the homeless and justice.

“There was an incident where a typically violent regular visitor came to the centre irate at another visitor for owing him money,” Cornell recalls. “But they sat down and talked out their differences and were shaking hands by the end. Sometimes I feel like what I do falls on deaf ears, but, when I see what I teach being put into practice, I know I’m making a difference.”

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