Telford: Homelessness is getting worse in Ottawa

The city council declared a state of emergency for housing and homelessness in March 2020. But there is little improvement to be seen.

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“I’m sorry, we don’t have any beds at the moment.” It’s a phrase I say over and over all day long. I offer the caller other numbers to seek shelter, only to be told those shelters are either full or they don’t feel safe going there. In the past week alone, I had to send nearly 40 women away from our shelter.

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I feel shattered and deflated every time I show someone around because there aren’t many places where women and people of different genders can go safely. I’m asked when a bed can be expected, and sadly I say I’m not expecting one anytime soon.

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Our system is broken. I know this, not only because of the number of people I send away in a day, but also because of the number of residents who spend months in our shelters. If someone does eventually leave, the bed will not be empty for more than an hour before it is filled. Homelessness is clearly far from being eradicated, and to be honest, it’s probably unattainable. The goal should be to reduce it.

The first thing we need is more money. Having worked at Cornerstone Housing for Women for 18 years, I can testify to the decline and change in the homelessness sector. And I can tell you it’s a direct result of budget cuts, not just in our industry, but also in medical, mental health and addiction treatment. This funding must come from all levels of government.

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The second thing we need is to create more partnerships within our healthcare system to make sure patients have a place to go after they leave the hospital, and not just dump them in an emergency shelter. Every day I see how hospital systems are overwhelmed and underfunded, and how our residents who need urgent psychiatric care are released without proper assessment and follow-up care plans. Without proper discharge plans, people end up in shelters, not just for the short term, but in the shelter system for more than six months. This is by far the largest population of residents in Cornerstone’s shelter at the moment.

The third solution we need is a plan to get more affordable housing. We need our newly elected councilors to develop an inclusive zoning plan requiring new developments to allocate 20 to 30 percent of their units to affordable housing. For those tenants who need it, there must be a social worker available so that people keep their homes and we prevent the cycle of homelessness from continuing.

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Since the city council declared a housing and homelessness emergency in March 2020, things have only gotten worse. As the world reopens, we are seeing the real impact of the pandemic. As inflation continues to rise, the cost of living is at an all-time high, rents in the private market are exorbitant and – let’s face it really – how can a person on welfare pay them if they are out of reach for a minimum wage earner? The vacancy rate in Ottawa is 3.4 percent, but for people with lower incomes it drops to 0.2 percent. It’s no surprise that the shelters are full.

We must take bold, innovative steps if we are to go a step further in reducing homelessness in our city.

I see the despair and hopelessness that arise month after month as women wait for housing. I am their witness. I am there, working in their temporary home, and can see how desperate they are for stability, security and a place to call home. Housing is a fundamental human right.

I want everyone to have a place to call home in a community that offers dignity and support. World Homeless Day is October 10. We may not be able to eradicate homelessness, but we can reduce it with these solutions. Let’s start by choosing a city council committed to more innovative housing solutions that address the housing and homelessness crisis.

Alison Telford is a frontline worker at Cornerstone Housing for Women in Ottawa.

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