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Ottawa mayor ‘optimistic’ city will get federal cash for strained emergency shelters

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

After working the phones and speaking with several top officials in the federal Liberal government, Mayor Jim Watson said on Monday he feels “optimistic” the City of Ottawa will get an injection of cash from Parliament Hill to help alleviate the city’s overflowing shelters and growing homeless family population.

Watson has asked the federal government for about $11 million to deal with what he calls “one of the biggest challenges” the city is facing, an ask he took to a conference of Canada’s big city mayors in Ottawa on Monday morning, which included a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

READ MORE: Ottawa mayor asks feds for cash to tackle rising pressure on emergency shelters

But the Ottawa mayor added that any chunk of cash from the feds would only take the heat off the city in the short term.

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“This is going to solve sort of one financial pressure point we have in our budget but we’re going to need ongoing, long-term commitment and we need additional dollars,” Watson told reporters following the press conference.

Watson has been asking the federal government for some financial relief for emergency housing for months now, as an influx of refugee claimants from the United States is placing additional pressures on Ottawa’s shelter system.

The mayor reportedly first wrote to the prime minister in the summer and then wrote a separate letter in December to Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister responsible for housing and families.

READ MORE: One-quarter of Ottawa’s homeless are refugees and immigrants, survey suggests

The most recent letter, co-signed by city council’s housing and homelessness liaison Catherine McKenney, said the municipality doesn’t have the resources it needs to meet housing requests from “vulnerable families.”

“We have over 250 families living in hotels, which is not a great circumstance for a family of four or five or six people, living in a one or two-bedroom motel, and it’s also not economic for us to continue to pay for that,” Watson said during Monday’s press conference at the Château Laurier in downtown Ottawa.

Watson said he’s been working the phones, speaking with ministers and members of Parliament about the issue.

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“They understand we need to be treated the same way and fairly as other municipalities,” he said.

WATCH: Toronto advocates, councillors call on City to declare homelessness ‘state of emergency’ (Jan. 22, 2019)
Click to play video: 'Toronto advocates, councillors call on City to declare homelessness ‘state of emergency’' Toronto advocates, councillors call on City to declare homelessness ‘state of emergency’
Toronto advocates, councillors call on City to declare homelessness ‘state of emergency’ – Jan 22, 2019

In arguing for more federal dollars, Watson has repeatedly pointed to the City of Toronto, which received $11 million from the federal government to alleviate its asylum seeker housing crisis in the summer, and another $15 million for its emergency shelters on Friday.

Watson has said any money the City of Ottawa receives for the same purpose would help to cover the municipality’s budget overrun for housing in 2017 ($5.7 million) and its expected budget overrun for 2018 ($6.2 million).

Watson said he will also be meeting with federal Bill Blair, minister of border security and organized crime reduction, later this week to talk about the issue.

READ MORE: Return of Parliament means MPs sharpening elbows for final stretch ahead of election

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Asked whether he considers the emergency shelter system’s current situation a crisis, Watson refrained from using that word but described the issue as one of the biggest challenges the city is facing.

“I think it’s a crisis for the individuals who are living in sub-standard conditions but I think it’s a very big challenge for us and we need to have all three levels of government working together,” Watson said.

In a scrum afterwards with reporters, Watson noted the city also lost funding for affordable housing when the provincial Progressive Conservative government cancelled Ontario’s cap-and-trade system.

“Our partners in housing lost about $25 million in energy retrofits, energy-efficient appliances, that would reduce greenhouse gases and reduce our costs of operating these facilities,” Watson said.

Mayors press for sustained transit funding, extra climate change dollars, ‘modernized’ federal-municipal relationship

Housing and homelessness, however, were not among the top three requests the country’s big city mayors collectively made to the Liberal government on Monday, ahead of the next federal budget.

Accompanied by Watson and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the group of mayors asked for permanent federal funding for public transit projects, specifically $34 billion over the next 10 years.

Also on the list: a top up of the federal pot of cash allocated to help cities better respond to natural disasters and extreme weather, and an inter-governmental forum as a means of “modernizing” the federal-municipal relationship.

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Asked why housing and homelessness didn’t make the list when they are regularly cited as pan-Canadian concerns, Watson said they did make top five.

– With files from the Canadian Press

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