Op-Ed: What the city of Ottawa can do to help end homelessness
Last week, the City of Ottawa announced it will close the Forward Avenue Family Shelter, effective Dec. 15. This shelter closure will affect 14 families with children, interrupting their school year and displacing these families from their neighbourhood.
Forward Avenue, an old school repurposed as an emergency family shelter, is at the end of its life cycle, and repairs would be costly. This is a wakeup call. As a city, we have seen a 33-per-cent rise in family shelter use since the adoption of the city’s 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan in 2014. In 2017, the City placed 182 families in motels. Ottawa is facing a homelessness crisis, fuelled by pressures on housing affordability, just for a start.
Homelessness is one of the most merciless realities anyone can experience. Homelessness wears down your sense of self, your independence, your motivation. When you see a family whose life circumstances have led them to a situation where they no longer have a home, be assured this is no one’s choice.
Homelessness is about the cost of living. It is about being unable to make ends meet, even with one, two or three jobs. It is about truth and reconciliation, income inequality, and the erosion of cultural inclusion and human rights. It is about recognizing the ongoing prevalence of physical and sexual abuse, mental health, addictions, illness and trauma.
Homelessness results from the choices of our governments and policies. It is the result of the erosion of our social services. Every neighbourhood in this city is affected. Ottawa’s rental housing vacancy rate sits at a low 1.7 per cent. The affordable monthly housing cost for those on old age security, full-time minimum wage, and Ontario’s social assistance programs all fall well below the average market rent for a bachelor apartment in Ottawa.
A staggering 42 per cent of Ottawa households spend more than 30 per cent of household income on rent. Thirteen per cent of Ottawa residents live on low income. That’s more than 55,000 households with insufficient income to meet their basic needs, such as housing, food, child and health care.
For Ottawa to see a significant and lasting reduction to the rising number of families, women, men, youth and Indigenous peoples accessing our shelters – which reached an all-time high of 7,530 in 2017 – strong municipal leadership is needed.
Why should Ottawa provide political and financial support to make this happen? Homelessness could happen to anyone. No one is exempt. We also know it is less expensive to keep someone housed then to re-house that person or family.
Here are six things city council can do right now to effect change:
• Create an annual capital investment envelope earmarked for new affordable housing over and above provincial and federal grants;
• Commit to setting a yearly target for the amount of affordable housing developed across a range of income thresholds and a mix of household types;
• Support a strong citywide inclusionary zoning bylaw that ensures a special emphasis on deeply affordable housing close to LRT and rapid transit stations;
• Provide city-owned land close to LRT stations for affordable and supportive housing development;
• Invest in homelessness prevention and long-term housing stability by connecting people to the resources and services they need to stay housed in their own neighbourhoods;
• Advocate for provincial and federal government funds to alleviate housing affordability needs.
The City of Ottawa will review its Housing and Homelessness Plan in 2019. This is an important chance to set realistic goals and dedicate the resources necessary to achieve them.
The closure of Forward Avenue Family Shelter is a reminder that local leadership is essential to making meaningful change to homelessness outcomes in Ottawa.
Kristen Holinsky is the Executive Director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.
Printed in the Ottawa Citizen, November 21st, 2018