OTTAWA — An online petition referring to three homeless shelters in Ottawa’s ByWard Market as a “cancer” in the area quickly went viral last week.
"The shelters, in their current configuration, must be diagnosed for what they are — a cancer which is now terminal for those residents and businesses in their vicinity,” wrote Patrick O’Shaughnessy, the business owner who started the petition on a website called Save the Market.
The petition (which he has now taken down) collected more than 2,500 signatures within days, and it meanwhile opened the floodgates on Reddit, where users shared stories about fraught encounters with homeless people in the Ottawa region. Others felt O’Shaughnessy’s language had crossed a line. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson reacted on Twitter, saying it was “disgraceful” and “completely unacceptable” to refer to shelters as a cancer.
Within a week of being posted online, O’Shaughnessy removed the petition. Through his website, he claimed he received warnings that his business, a shop that sells cemetery monuments, would be picketed if he did not.
Homeless shelters have become a contentious subject in Ottawa, with residents hotly debating where they should be built — if anywhere at all. One of ByWard Market’s three major shelters, the Salvation Army Booth Centre, is slated to move to a proposed $50-million, 350-bed facility in Vanier, a neighbourhood in the city’s east end that already struggles with poverty and homelessness. When the Salvation Army unveiled its plans last June, reaction was swift. A community group calling itself SOS Vanier immediately sprang up, pledging to stop the shelter from being built in the community. Opponents say their opposition is not a simple case of NIMBYism — the old “not in my backyard” mentality. They oppose the shelter, in part, because they believe there are better ways to combat homelessness in Ottawa.
The Alliance to End Homelessness in Ottawa, which releases an annual progress report on homelessness, reported that 7,170 individuals used the city’s emergency shelters in 2016, an increase of 5.2 per cent from 2015. The 2017 figures have not yet been released.
The proposed Vanier facility got the green light when city council voted last November to allow an exception to zoning bylaws that prohibited a shelter from being built on Montreal Road. SOS Vanier argues that residents in the neighbourhood were not properly consulted. Members of the group worry about the size of the shelter (some refer to it as a “mega-shelter”), and they fear it could harm a community that already struggles with poverty, homelessness, and addiction. “Vanier in general is a disadvantaged community,” said Drew Dobson, founder of SOS Vanier and owner of Finnigan’s Pub, located a stone’s throw from the proposed shelter site.
“We have our share of poverty,” he said. “There’s already an addiction halfway house, there’s a house for battered women, and there’s a John Howard Society on this block. The neighbourhood doesn’t need 350 more people with poverty and addiction issues.”
With the support of Dobson and SOS Vanier, area business owners have filed an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board in the hopes of overturning the city’s decision. That process could take up to two years, and ground will not be broken on a new shelter until it’s completed.
In the meantime, Dobson said he hopes for a broader discussion about the city’s approach to homelessness.
Councillor Mathieu Fleury, who represents the Rideau-Vanier ward and chairs the Ottawa Community Housing board, voted against the zoning change, and believes the creation of a 350-bed shelter is the wrong strategy altogether.
Fleury and Dobson are both proponents of what is known as the “housing first” approach to homelessness. Instead of the treatment-first support that shelters have traditionally provided, housing-first programs aim to place homeless people in stable housing immediately, while still providing them with the supports and services they require.
Some research suggests the housing-first model can lead to more stable outcomes for people who are chronically homeless. Tim Aubry, who holds a faculty chair in community mental health and homelessness in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Ottawa, was part of a group that studied the effects of housing-first programs in five Canadian cities (Montreal, Moncton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto).
The 2016 study — prepared for the Mental Health Commision of Canada and claiming to be the largest trial of its kind in the world with 2,000 participants — compared the housing-first model to a “treatment as usual” model for two years, and found that housing-first participants obtained and retained housing at a much higher rate than the other group. “The findings were so unequivocal. Housing first had double the success, or more,” said Aubry.
He called the city’s decision to build a new, 350-bed shelter a “head-scratcher,” given the evidence put forward by his and others’ research. As well, the City of Ottawa bought into housing-first concept years ago, making it a “key component” of the city’s 10-year housing and homelessness plan.
“I was shocked when the initial plan came out in June. I’ve been very vocal about opposing [it]. It’s not NIMBYism. I don’t live in Vanier,” Aubry said. The problem with the shelter, he argued, is that it represents an outdated model “where you have to prepare people before they can get out into their own housing. We’re getting away from that in North America, and around the world, frankly.”
Aubry did recognize the lingering need for some emergency shelter beds — cities will always have residents who are temporarily displaced, for a variety of reasons — but he thinks shelters should be seen as a short-term solution only. And while he praised the Salvation Army as “an important organization doing important work,” he wonders why it seems to be ignoring the evidence in front of it. “I can only surmise they don’t know about what’s going on out there with the research. Or they don’t believe it.”
The Salvation Army, for its part, says it has employed a housing-first approach since 2008. The organization argues that the proposed shelter will continue to offer services that help individuals and families find long-term permanent housing. “Ultimately that is our goal,” said Glenn van Gulik, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army. “Our housing-based case managers are constantly working with people, trying to find them appropriate housing inside the city.”
Van Gulik thinks that the public perception of the planned “community hub” as a mega-shelter is an oversimplification. “Yes, 350 beds, that is a large facility. But it is not a 350-bed shelter. This is a multi-program facility.” Van Gulik explains that 140 of the 350 beds will be set aside for emergency purposes, with the rest of the beds accommodating those who are taking part in the organization’s other services, including employment training and life skills programs.
On the issue of location, van Gulik says the Montreal Road site was chosen based on a set of criteria that included access to outdoor space, proximity to other health and social services, and public transit and pedestrian access to and from the downtown core. “We spoke to real estate consultants and evaluated several locations. Some were good locations, but not the right size … Some properties we looked at would be perfect but were nabbed up. Others were simply too costly.”
Van Gulik thinks the new shelter can actually reinvigorate an area that is already experiencing homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution. Salvation Army believes that the project will not only bring hundreds of new jobs to the community, but the services offered will address a need for more services in a part of the city is already susceptible to poverty and homelessness.
“We want to do this, we want to build this facility. We want to be a part of this community,” he said. “If we can be a positive influence in that area, to try to bring it out of its current situation, we see it a great opportunity.”
Later this month, Ottawa councillors will review the city’s homelessness plan, including its shelter funding model. It is possible the city will change its mind on the shelter in Vanier before a shovel even hits the ground. Until then, expect Ottawa to continue its contentious debate on how to provide support for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
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