Community Newspaper Columns

A report card on homelessness in Ottawa

May 2017

I recently attended an event hosted by the Alliance to End Homelessness, where they presented their 2016 Progress Report on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa. Having made affordable housing and homelessness a personal priority for this term of council, I took great interest in both the report and comments made at the event by leaders in this sector.

A simple message to share is that Ottawa (the city and the many organizations active in the Alliance) is making important progress on homelessness. But the needs are still great, and are even growing rather than shrinking in some areas.

Some specific findings include:

  • There were more than 7,170 “visible” homeless people in Ottawa in 2016, an increase of more than 5% from 6,815 in 2015. “Visible” refers to individuals using emergency shelters and does not include homeless people staying with friends, couch surfing, etc. The number also does not count the 40,000 households living in poverty and unable to pay rent.
  • More older individuals are relying on shelter services, particularly single women, with a 20% increase in women over the age of 50 and a 30% increase in women over 60 in 2016. For older women, safety is a primary concern and a factor in determining where they choose to stay. For example, if a woman has a long walk from a transit stop or the only options for housing are in an area where she feels threatened, she is more likely to choose a shelter.
  • The report highlighted the homeless population with dementia as well as new Canadians, including a large number of women and girls from Burundi, where women are being specifically targeted in a long-running civil war.
  • With 12.5% more families using shelters, all of Ottawa’s family shelters are full. An average of 140 households per night are placed in off-site motels, at a cost of $4.5 million per year. They need long-term housing solutions.
  • Youth are staying in shelters longer, with an average stay up nearly 50%, from 32 to 47 nights.

The City of Ottawa, to coincide with this report, provided this list of recent initiatives and outcomes stemming from its 2011 Ten Year Housing and Homelessness Plan.

  • The Families First program added two positions (up from four in 2015) to ensure integration of families exiting shelters into their new communities, and to reduce returns to shelters. Currently, fewer than 1% return, compared to 30% before the program’s implementation in 2012.
  • A new investment of $500,000 in housing allowances and rent supplements is assisting an additional 58 families.
  • 279 families and 37 couples have been diverted from emergency shelters to other safe options.
  • Numerous factors contributed to the increase in demand for family shelters, such as family breakdown, lack of affordable housing, newcomers, and migration to Ottawa for economic and housing/support opportunities. This speaks to the need for additional affordable options to ensure housing settlement and stability.
  • 256 men and women moved from long shelter stays to affordable permanent housing with supports — 52% in the private market, 29% in supportive housing and 19% in social housing (a total of 386 since July 2015).
  • 423 single people were diverted from community shelters to other safe options.
  • 120 older single men and women received a housing allowance to create housing stability.
  • Two projects totaling 81 new units of supportive housing have been approved for youth (39 units) and single women (42), with construction beginning in 2017.

As interesting as the statistics may be, there is only one that really matters: everyone having access to a safe and affordable place to live and sleep. Ultimately, the solutions to homelessness lie in preventive actions. People who have sufficient money to meet their basic needs, who have access to quality physical and mental health services, including addiction treatment and support, who are not in fear of domestic violence or other sources of violence, and who have support from a range of community and social services are far less likely to find themselves in search of emergency housing or sleeping rough.

That is a tall order for governments and social service agencies, yet it must be our objective. Nothing less will “end” homelessness.

With the stars aligned, in that all levels of government are making housing and homelessness a priority, we need to seize the moment and explore all possibilities. For Capital Ward, that means continuing to be part of the solution. Just as we are not immune from the pressures and conditions that lead to homelessness, nor should we feel that supportive housing belongs “somewhere else.”

I have heard those comments, though, and I expect I will again. But my resolve is firm. I will work to ensure that the needs of the city’s most marginalized and desperate are addressed, which includes finding more, appropriate places and spaces within the ward I represent.

I welcome your feedback.