Community opposition to homeless shelters is often rooted in fear, when in fact they can be "good neighbours," the head of The Ottawa Mission told a city committee mulling a proposal for a 350-bed facility in Vanier Friday. 

Peter Tilley, executive director of the Waller Street shelter, made his pitch to city councillors on the third and final day of public delegations on the controversial proposal by the Salvation Army.

'It will be so much more than a homeless shelter.' - Peter Tilley, The Ottawa Mission

"It will be so much more than a homeless shelter," Tilley said, pointing to the myriad services planned for the new location at 333 Montreal Rd.

"We often get that reaction. When people come in [to The Mission] for a tour they often see the fear barrier goes down and the recognition of the services provided goes up."

Tilley said The Mission, which has 220 beds, has become a community hub over the years, and has formed partnerships in the community, including an education program for homeless clients at the University of Ottawa, and clothing and food drives organized by tenants at nearby condo buildings.

"If you look to our community I think many would say we've been a very good neighbour for many years," he said. 

"And I think if some were to step into the future in two or three years from now and stand across the street from the Salvation Army ... I think they would have to agree that it will be a good site as well."

Others who spoke Friday, including members of the Indigenous community, raised safety concerns.

Former parliamentary budget officer opposed to shelter

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who made a name for himself crunching numbers for federal politicians tasked with making difficult decisions, has added his voice to the chorus calling on the City of Ottawa to nix a proposal by the Salvation Army for a 350-bed shelter in Vanier.​

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Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, co-chair of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and president of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at University of Ottawa, spoke out against Salvation Army's controversial proposal for a 350-bed facility in Vanier Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Page was among the dozens of speakers scheduled to address the city's planning committee Friday, the third and final day of public delegations on the controversial shelter proposal. After the committee votes, likely late Friday night, the issue will go to city council for final approval.

The Salvation Army is hoping to concentrate a number of the programs and services it offers at the new location on Montreal Road.

But Page, who co-chairs the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said research shows creating so-called mega-shelters is an ineffective way to combat homelessness.

"I don't think there's any evidence to support that [mega-shelters have] a positive impact," Page said.

Federal strategy coming

Page noted the federal government will be releasing its national housing strategy next week, and said the Salvation Army's proposal may not fit into that plan.

"If we take this decision as it's written up right now in terms of developing this mega-shelter in Vanier, Ottawa risks falling behind," Page cautioned the committee.

The Salvation Army would do better to offer clients both treatment and help finding housing at the same time, along the lines of the housing first model, Page said, because that creates more economically diverse, socially cohesive  neighbourhoods.

Page suggested planners go back to the drawing board.

"If the right thing to do, based on all the evidence, takes us down a different path in terms of dealing with chronic homelessness, episodic homelessness, people with mental health issues … then we should follow that path," he said after speaking to the committee.

Contentious file

The Salvation Army's proposal for the 350-bed facility on Montreal Road is the most contentious file to come to the planning committee in recent memory.

The facility would add 120 more beds than the Salvation Army offers at its current shelter. It would include a courtyard for recreation and a café where participants in the charity's life skills program could work.

Community and family services including emergency food, clothing and transportation help are also planned for the new facility.

Some community members have taken issue with the shelter's potential effect on the surrounding neighbourhood, and worry about a possible increase in crime, and alcohol and drug use.

With files from Joe Lofaro