The proposal to move the Salvation Army Shelter from its existing location on George Street to Montreal Road, thereby expanding its current 150 bed shelter to a 350 bed complex, is one of the most important decisions we will make this term of Council.
As I sat through three days of committee last week listening to arguments from both sides of the issue I tried to always keep in mind the very people that are most impacted by the fact that we even need shelters in a city as prosperous as Ottawa; those for whom there is no ‘home’ to return to at the end of the day but rather a shelter bed and space shared with dozens of others who represent our most vulnerable and often invisible residents. I also return to the original purpose of a shelter, a temporary accommodation in emergency situations until a person is able to return to housing. Too often we hear stories of people who have ‘lived’ at a shelter for months or years, thereby negating this idea of shelters as emergency housing.
And it goes without saying that without our network of shelters in Ottawa there are hundreds of people who would be without any shelter. No one else is doing the work of Cornerstone, Salvation Army, Shepherds, the Mission and other shelters in opening their doors and their hearts to the city’s most desperate and vulnerable residents.
So I ask myself two questions as I prepare to vote at Council on Wednesday:
First, does a shelter consisting of 350 beds belong on Montreal Road, a traditional mainstreet in one of our inner-core communities? This new facility will allocate 140 beds as short-term shelter beds and another 100 beds as residential care facility. After careful deliberation I am not convinced that it does. Our planning documents, which provide certainty to communities and are expected to be followed except in the most exceptional cases does not include shelters as a permitted use. There was simply no compelling evidence in the staff report nor from the arguments of the proponents of the shelter that convinced me that we should ignore the rules guiding how our traditional mainstreets are meant to develop. And our mainstreets are the spines that connect our communities and allow our neighbourhoods to flourish. They are just too important not to protect with all of our efforts.
Second: does an expansion of our shelter system respond in the most efficient, effective and humane way to our growing homeless population in Ottawa? I do not believe that it does. We cannot separate our responsibility to land-use planning from social planning. It is not how we build complete neighbourhoods and a modern city that responds to the needs of all residents. It is too easy to say we need shelters until we are able to provide housing for all. At the very least, we should not be expanding shelter beds at a time when other levels of government recognize the needs for a more holistic Housing First approach.
This is where I continue to go back to the 140 Shelter beds plus the addition of the 100 residential care beds. It is the latter that I struggled with throughout. Are they shelter beds? We are told that they are not. Are they funded in the same way? Again we are told that they are not. But it turns out the most important question is why are they needed? Because, in fact, they are neither emergency shelter beds nor are they homes. And this is the key point where the entire proposal fails. Why are we continuing to keep people in shelter facilities beyond the shortest time possible?
It is important to note also that I represent a ward that includes many group homes, halfway houses for both men and women, shelters, supportive housing providers, social and affordable housing neighbourhoods all contributing to a dynamic, interesting, complex, and exciting ward. Our communities thrive because they are socially and economically diverse. Families and single adults and youth who live in poverty, possibly dealing with addictions and/or mental health challenges, belong in all of our neighbourhoods. And I firmly believe that we can do better than continuing to rely on an expanded shelter system to help them achieve independence and a quality of life that we all expect.
Now the hard works begins….. making meaningful change. The Salvation Army, the Mission and all of our shelters will need to be part of the change. They have been on the frontlines of homelessness and we need them as partners if we are going to change how we respond to homelessness. Do I believe that a shelter can be a good neighbour? Of course I do. I see this everyday in Somerset ward. But this is not the question we are faced with today. We must decide if a mainstreet is the best location for a large shelter and if we should seriously re-think our housing approach so that we have a fighting chance to ending chronic and expanding homelessness in the City of Ottawa. And we are doing so at a time when our provincial and federal partners are recognizing the need for a new approach which includes scattered housing, mobile supports and the best practices of Housing First in tandem with investments in our existing stock of social housing units and the need for funding to expand our affordable housing communities. Let’s not miss the opportunity for real change.