Ottawa Citizen: McKenney: Spend more on affordable housing in Ottawa, not on police

Last week my office mail included a letter from a woman who lives out of province.  The three typed pages told a story of her brother who lived in a rooming house in Ottawa.  More devastated than outraged, she questioned how her brother's shocking circumstances could have happened in a city like Ottawa.   She described her visit one summer during which she

witnessed a dark and filthy room in a local rooming house; the room, filled with bugs, one small window and a shared toilet under a staircase with no lightbulb, unfit for any person.  Her brother, she told me, a kind and gentle person who loved animals, made his best attempts to keep in touch but did not have a cell phone and could rarely afford the long distance call from a pay phone.  What he dreamed of was a bathroom with a light and a shower of his own.  In July of this year he was found dead in that same room during a heat wave, his body badly decomposed and partially eaten by small animals that had entered through a window without a screen to keep them out.  One of the most difficult letters I have ever read, I wondered what I might have been able to do had she been in touch when he was alive. The answer? Not much.

A few days later, on Metcalfe Street, I walked past a man yelling in distress, an obvious mental health crisis.  Again, I wondered what I could do besides call the police.  Why are we constantly faced with calling for enforcement when what we need is a health response? Were our City a hospital, this model would force all those needing care to enter through Emergency. 

This is why I cannot support the Ottawa Police Services 2021 Budget increase of 3% or $13.2 million.  We cannot continue to defund health, social services and housing while increasing funding to police.  

Instead, I will bring a motion to Council that recommends $13.2 million be added to the 2021 City budget for affordable housing and the supports we urgently need for people who are unhoused or precariously housed. It will also ask for an investment to establish a type of neighbourhood crisis team that will function as an alternative to policing vulnerable residents who are marginalized and in need of community-based compassionate care to help them through their crisis.  

What will all of this cost?  Far less than what we are paying to keep people in shelters and hospitals.  And far less than we pay police to respond to calls they are unequipped to deal with.  Over many years, as we shortsightedly cut back on the overall rate of social service spending, the responsibility for mental health and social service crisis calls has gone to police.  This is both unfair and an abdication of our responsibility to people who are unwell and need help, not enforcement. We have the opportunity to begin to reverse this with our 2021 budget.

So back to the question of cost.  For just $2.38 a month for an average urban residential property (a 1.33% increase in the City wide levy), we can invest an additional $5 million in housing which could help to build 40 units of housing per year (note: we need much more and there are some funding streams from the federal government but an additional 40 means that many less families in motels at a cost of $3000 per month).  

We would also be able to invest an additional $5 million in our Community Funding envelope to support our non-profit social service agencies who are finding it increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible to meet the basic needs of people who are in crisis in our city as a result of poverty, lack of proper housing, food insecurity and addictions.  

Lastly, for that same $2.38/month we could invest $3.2 million to establish the type of community-led response we need to the growing number of mental health calls for people who are in crisis. When we divert these calls for service from police to community-led neighbourhood crisis teams the savings will be significant.  For example, municipal funding for the social services sector in 2018 was $24.25 per resident compared to $334.87 per resident for police services.  Compared to 2011 and adjusted for inflation, this represents a decrease of 12.8% for social services and an increase of 12.4% for police.  These are not good returns on investment. Nor are they much of an answer to the sister's question: How does something like this happen in a city like Ottawa? We know how. We also know how to do better. 

Making the right call for someone in a moment of distress will make our communities safer, save us money, and begin to change how we police people in our city, in particular Black, Indigenous, racialized and newcomer communities who are greater risk of being underserved and over policed.  

Phone: 613-580-2484
Address: 110 Laurier Ave W, Ottawa, ON K1P 1J1