Story: Aedan Helmer; Photo: Jean Levac
Residents of a tent city near LeBreton Flats are coping with the suddenly frigid temperatures and bitter winds with an outpouring of donations from the community, while advocates are now calling for increased political pressure to solve the city’s housing crisis.
“We’ve had a wonderful response and it’s been really moving to see peopleresponding to this crisis in this way, trying to do practical things to help people,” said Rachel Robinson, executive director of St. Luke’s Table outreach centre.
“Obviously our goal is to get people housed. Nobody wants anyone sleeping outside in this weather, so the city is working hard to try to get people housed and that’s really the goal, but obviously more needs to be done,” Robinson said.
“I would like to see a situation within a few weeks where we don’t need any new donations.”
As the colder weather sets in, Robinson said, their “outreach team” will be revising the lists of immediate needs for the tent city residents.
Staff have been collecting donated food and essentials, as well as sleeping bags, tarps and mats at the Somerset Street West outreach centre, which are then delivered to the tent city in a wooded area near LeBreton Flats.
In a statement, Overdose Prevention Ottawa called it a “bleak time” for those seeking secure housing in “a process fraught with multiple barriers.”
Some tent city residents had been displaced in a LeBreton Street North rooming-house fire in April, while others joined the encampment after a four-unit house fire on Bronson Avenue last month.
Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney said the majority of those displaced by the LeBreton Street fire have now been housed, and all those remaining at the site have been assessed and assigned case co-ordinators, with access to housing allowances.
McKenney said she and fellow Coun. Jeff Leiper have been making calls to local landlords and linking those contacts to tent city residents.
Robinson said the increased visibility of the issue has generated a positive response in the community, but “there needs to more political will to change this situation.”
“It has actually taken a crisis like this for people to start talking about it, and if one good thing comes out of this, then perhaps now the general public will understand that this happens in our city. This happens in Ottawa.”
McKenney said as awareness has raised among the community, so too has the level of concern.
“Last year 40 people slept outside all winter, in various states and various places. That went up to about 50 by the end of winter. This year (to date) we have approximately 92 people who have been sleeping outside,” McKenney said.
“So while the tent city has given a visual to this issue, I remind people there are many, many more sleeping under bridges, in parks, who for a variety of reasons choose not to go to the shelters …
“That awareness gives us the leverage we need when we are asking for changes,” McKenney said. “We need the federal government to step up and start spending money out of the National Housing Strategy. That has not happened. We need it to. And I’m calling them out on that.”