By Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney
For several weeks, a group of women and men displaced by the rooming house fire on Lebreton Street in April have been making camp in the parcel of land between the Trillium pathway and Bayview Yards. There are anywhere from 10-15 people sleeping each night in a “tent city” in the nation’s capital in the shadow of Parliament Hill. The existence of this is an indictment of this city’s and country’s commitment to housing our most vulnerable. As the nights grow colder, there is an urgent need to do something. Time is running out.
Local social service agencies are doing their best to ensure the comfort of these residents. They are equipped with sleeping bags and tents, have food and water, and have a small fire pit. On recent visits, we have seen that the camp poses no public safety risk. But as snow makes its appearance in the forecast, it’s clear that we need to find these residents new housing to replace that which they’ve lost. As a last resort, we must open warming centres where the risk of freezing to death is eliminated.
We have heard the argument that these residents should simply move into the existing shelters. For a variety of reasons, this is impractical and often impossible. These are residents who depend on a community and the services available in this neighbourhood. It is their home.
Neither of us is advocating for extending the already stretched shelter system. Our request to the City to assist with the opening of warming centres in churches or other welcoming spaces is at best a short-term fix. For several weeks we have been working to ensure these residents are assessed for permanent housing and we hope that will happen in the very near future.
It is unconscionable that we have reached this point. In a wealthy country and equally wealthy city, a catastrophic and sudden loss of housing should not lead to being forced to sleep outdoors. No one should have an income so low that they cannot afford the kind of insurance that would provide emergency housing while re-building. When catastrophe does strike, a caring community would have capacity in its housing system to re-house the victims quickly, with rents that are affordable in neighbourhoods that offer the services and amenities they need.
In our last City budget, Council earmarked an additional $15 million in spending on housing, which is a start. However, it is going to be difficult to match that funding this year. We need our federal and provincial partners to come to the table in a serious way to help us build many more units of housing as quickly as possible. We need to implement inclusionary zoning so that affordable housing is built near transit, and we need to continue to prioritize affordable housing on public lands near transit.
What the current situation has demonstrated to us very clearly, though, is that the City needs to have quick response mechanisms in place so that when emergencies strike vulnerable residents, sleeping outdoors in late autumn isn’t the only option. Our proposal to open warming centres has run up against a funding wall. For want of a small number of dollars, some residents of our city are in significant danger.
There are three immediate needs.
First, we encourage residents to consult the list of items that Overdose Prevention Ottawa, working with the residents of the camp, has published on its page that will assist them to get through the coming days.
Second, we need to ensure that these residents don’t have to sleep outdoors by opening warming centres that are created in collaboration with them and that meet their practical needs. Where a minimal amount of funding is needed, the City should provide it. If that requires Council dispensation, then Council should vote in favour of the funding.
Third, we need to house these residents as quickly as possible. We recognize that this is probably the most difficult task. The opioid and housing crises are two sides of the same coin. Every level of government has a moral obligation to ensure that housing is respected as a human right, and come to the table with the resources necessary to provide it.