McKenney pledges help for homeless agencies

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney says she’s determined to find money in the city’s 2015 budget to help save several agencies that serve homeless people in Ottawa.

Centre 507, the Odawa Native Friendship Centre, the Well and Cornerstone all stand to lose federal and provincial government funding at the end of March due to a shift in thinking about how to best help marginalized people —

one that now prioritizes a housing-first approach over street outreach.

Odawa has already announced it will be forced to close its drop-in centre for the homeless at 510 Rideau St., while Centre 507 is facing a 54 per cent cut to its annual $650,000 budget.

McKenney said she will spend the next few weeks trying to build support among her council colleagues for a plan that would see the agencies receive transition funding for one year to help shift the work they do and ensure people are able to access other services in the community.

Although the city’s budget is tight, the councillor said she’s confident the money — and support — exists.

“I don’t for a minute think that there’s half-a-million dollars lying around anywhere, but I do think that we are a city with a lot of resources available to us and for one-time funding, we can find it,” she said.

McKenney made her intentions known during a meeting of the community and protective services committee, which was discussing the city’s proposed 2015 budget.

The committee oversees about one-third of the city’s total operating budget — nearly $1.1 billion in spending on a wide range of programs and services, including firefighters and paramedics, housing, community and social services, parks and recreation, bylaw and public works.

After hearing from nearly two dozen public delegations and questioning staff for several hours on the finer details of the spending plan, the committee passed it unanimously.

Council will have the final say on March 11, which is when McKenney, who isn’t on the committee, said she would introduce her motion for transition funding.

Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs the committee, said she would consider supporting the plan if the money can be found. But her support would come with some hesitation, she said.

“The reluctance that I have is to take up space that’s being vacated by upper tier levels of government because our budgets are so tight here at the city now,” she said.

Another key point of discussion for the committee is a plan to move $4 million of the $14 million for housing and homelessness this year from the capital side to the operating side.

Aaron Burry, general manager of community and social services, said the $14-million annual investment — which was part of Mayor Jim Watson’s election platform in 2010 — is slated for housing and housing supports, but there’s no specific allocation between capital and operating.

In the initial years, more money was initially going to capital than operating, but that has switched slightly as operating costs have grown over the years, Burry said.

But now, Burry said, the city needs to find $9.3 million to pay for the increased costs of operating social housing — a responsibility downloaded by the province, so that’s why the $4 million is being moved from one place to another.

“It’s all in the housing budget . . . certainly, social housing is part of that spectrum,” he said.

Some housing advocates questioned the move.

“My concern is it’s a step backwards. It was such a strong step forward four yours ago for council to make significant commitment,’ said Ray Sullivan of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, a non-profit housing provider.

“To see us slipping backward while pretending like we’re not is a disappointment,” he said.

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