The federal government’s plan to build affordable housing units under its long-awaited housing strategy ironically falls on the same day as Ottawa city councillors vote on the Salvation Army’s proposal to build a 350-bed mega-shelter on Montreal Road in Vanier. And that’s a good thing because the Salvation Army proposal in Parliament Hill’s back yard will do little to help homelessness. Unfortunately, the plan to build a mega-shelter is flawed and outdated.
The 2016 Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’s State of Homelessness in Canada report notes that previously “our primary approach to homelessness was to invest in a crisis response by building a large and expensive infrastructure around emergency services and supports, including shelters, day programs, and drop ins. These emergency responses were often coupled with law enforcement efforts that functioned to criminalize homelessness. While emergency supports are an essential component of any response, this approach does little to stem the flow into homelessness or help people exit homelessness quickly.”
Experts, such as University of Ottawa psychology professor Tim Aubry and Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Tim Richter, have repeatedly pointed out that research shows that the mega-shelter model proposed by Salvation Army is flawed, outdated, costly and ineffective. In this case, smaller is better.
While shelters are useful in crisis situations, they are not long-term solutions to ending homelessness. We should be focusing on getting people into affordable homes. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities notes, “safe, affordable housing is the bedrock of livable, competitive cities.” In fact, there is a $1.40 return for every dollar invested in housing, according to Finance Canada’s Employment and Output Impacts report. Perhaps instead of building a mega-shelter, we could be using the $50 million to build 350 social housing units or working on addressing underlying causes of homelessness such as mental health issues, lack of education and skills and substance abuse problems.
City councillors need to realize that simply shifting the problems associated with the Salvation Army’s ByWard Market location en masse to a residential neighbourhood is not a solution and would only generate more problems for all involved. Smaller-scale projects offering housing and specialized support services in locations across Ottawa are proving to offer opportunities for effective service delivery and better outcomes.
According to the United Way Ottawa, 5.2 per cent more individuals used an emergency shelter in 2016 than the previous year, the second consecutive year that saw an increase. Additionally, the number of “bed nights” (each time a shelter bed is used by an individual), went from 500,233 to 525,972, with families accounting for half of those. Clearly services to help the homeless and at-risk people are vital and essential. But it is imperative that city planners take the time to re-evaluate the city’s needs and options to get this right, especially in light of the federal government’s commitment to affordable housing and ensuring that housing is a right to all.
Vanier already has a large concentration of social services centres and agencies in the city and residents are continually working to address mental health, drug and prostitution problems. Not only does the Salvation Army’s proposal not accord with current zoning rules, which bar emergency shelters from traditional main streets such as Montreal Road, the chosen location runs counter to widely accepted thinking on the social determinants of health.
To be successful and thrive, an individual’s environment needs to include access to a range of facilities and services such as day care, fresh affordable food, employment support or transitional housing. The Montreal Road location offers exactly the opposite. The nearest Service Ontario location, grocery, library with dedicated support for job seekers and hospital are not close. And transit connections for these types of services in most cases are not easy.
Local business owners (full disclosure, I am one) say it also threatens to set back their efforts to revitalize the area with new restaurants, shops and other establishments. Residents are rightly concerned that placing the 103,000 square-foot structure for a 350-bed men-only shelter at 333 Montreal Rd. will be contrary to the best interests of the at-risk people it is meant to serve.
For the sake of the Salvation Army’s clients and for our city’s at-risk population who need and very much deserve the services proposed, let’s re-evaluate the current proposal in light of tbest practices and above all, take the time to get it right.
Today is a big day in Parliament Hill’s backyard of Vanier, but for all the wrong reasons. We should at least be thankful for the national housing-related announcement taking place today – that move has a greater chance of real impact, and change.
Jacquie LaRocque is a small-business owner and resident in Ottawa-Vanier, a former public servant in social policy and a long-time mental health advocate
The Hill Times