After appealing for help last summer, Mayor Jim Watson has once again asked the federal government to transfer extra funding to the City of Ottawa so it can tackle rising pressures on its emergency shelter system, saying the municipality doesn’t have the resources it needs to meet housing requests from “vulnerable families,” including refugees and refugee claimants.
A major reason for this is a “significant and sustained increase” in the number of families experiencing homelessness in Ottawa since 2016, according to a letter Watson wrote to Jean-Yves Duclos, federal minister of families, children and social development.
Notably, families who left the United States and crossed the border into Canada are adding to the growing demand for limited shelter space, claimed the letter, which is dated Dec. 20, 2018.
“The City of Ottawa is unable to meet the demands of vulnerable families in our community for safe, adequate emergency shelter services,” said the letter, co-signed by Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who serves as city council’s special liaison for housing and homelessness.
More families are experiencing chronic homelessness in Ottawa and are staying in the city’s shelters for longer periods of time, Watson and McKenney wrote.
In 2017, the number of chronically homeless families recorded jumped to 236 from 87 in 2016 — an increase of 171 per cent — they said. The letter also claimed that as of Dec. 10, 2018, the city was housing 53 per cent more families in its emergency shelter facilities than at the same point in 2017 — 260 families, up from 170.
As of Nov. 30, 2018, the city had received 584 placement requests from refugee claimants who crossed the Canada-U.S. border alone, 405 of them from families.
City expects costs related to refugees, refugee claimants to rise
Responding to the needs of families who crossed the border into Canada from the U.S. took the City of Ottawa $5.7 million over budget in 2017, the mayor’s letter said, and the city expects that deficit to rise to $6.2 million for 2018.
To address this and other financial and capacity issues plaguing the city’s emergency shelter system, Watson and McKenney are asking the federal government for a cash injection.
While they didn’t request a specific amount, the two municipal leaders asked the governing Liberals to “provide the same type of assistance for shelters to the City of Ottawa as was provided to the City of Toronto.” Toronto received $11 million in federal dollars to help with the city’s housing issues in August.
“The City of Ottawa has not received any federal funding to date, even though a significant part of the pressure on our shelter system and social supports as (sic) a direct result of the same influx of U.S. refugee claimants,” Watson and McKenney’s letter claimed.
Lisa MacLeod, provincial minister for children, community and social services, formally requested $200 million from the federal government last year to address asylum seekers from the U.S. living in Ontario, asking for $12 million of that amount to be allocated to the City of Ottawa.
City would use funds to boost shelter capacity, housing allowances: letter
The letter said the city would use any funds received to expand its family shelter capacity and increase its portable housing subsidy for families for a limited time so that vulnerable families could seek lodging in the private market.
The City of Ottawa owns and operates one family shelter on Carling Avenue and contracts with two community organizations, including the YMCA, to provide emergency housing for families. When there’s no vacancy in those facilities — and those in need cannot stay with relatives or friends — families are placed in a motel or hotel contracted by the city.
The recent closure of the city’s second family shelter in Mechanicsville has “compounded” the pressures on the emergency housing system, the letter admitted, as well as Ottawa’s tight and expensive rental market.
The city would use any federal dollars to add up to 40 rooms at the Carling Family Shelter and to help the YMCA convert two to three floors of office space into residential rooms to host families, Watson and McKenney wrote.
In a statement sent to Global News on Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for Duclos’s office confirmed the minister received Watson’s letter and that his team is “in the process of producing an official response.”
“Our government believes that all Canadians deserve safe, affordable, accessible housing, and we recognize that when one person is forced to live on the streets, all of us are diminished,” the statement said. “We’ll continue to work with our partners at all levels of government to make sure that we’re responding to the housing and homelessness crisis in the most effective way possible.”
—With files from David Shum