Can Ottawa really end homelessness?

Ottawa city councillors are coming to grips with the difficult reality that their goal to end chronic homelessness by 2024 may have been too lofty.

As city spends $18M per year combating homelessness, councillors ask whether problem will ever be solved

Ottawa saw only a five per cent decrease in the number of chronically homeless singles since council passed its 10-year housing and homelessness strategy. (CBC)

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  • Council received this report at its meeting on Mar. 28, 2018.

Ottawa city councillors are coming to grips with the difficult reality that their goal to end chronic homelessness by 2024 may have been too lofty.

Councillors sat through a marathon meeting Thursday as housing advocates, economists, community activists, formerly homeless people and even Coun. Mark Taylor piled idea on top of idea to get people into housing and out of emergency shelters.

But with each new proposal, councillors' outlooks appeared to turn more bleak.

"Always, the goal should be striving to end homelessness," said Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the community and protective services committee.

"Having said that, how realistic is it? Are we setting ourselves up for failure?"

It seems that no matter how many people are housed there are more and more people needing support and not enough money to go around.

The city spends $18 million to combat homelessness each year.

Plan calls for end to homelessness by 2024 

Since 2014, when the city plan came into effect, chronic homelessness among singles has only decreased by five per cent.

But in that same timeframe there's been a staggering increase in the number of families facing chronic homelessness in Ottawa, with more than double enduring long stays in shelters or motels.

Councillors expressed serious concerns about the number of families staying in shelters and subsidized motels. City staff attributed the increase to the number of asylum seekers and other newcomers to the city.

They said they see no sign of the demand for family shelter space slowing any time soon.

"It's heartbreaking when you see that number go up," said Coun. Mathieu Fleury.

More support needed from province, feds 

Deans worried no matter how much progress the city makes to get people housed, more will be waiting for support as people migrate to Ottawa for the help they need.

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum said he doesn't think the city will be able to deal with the problem without more funding from the provincial and federal governments.

He asked staff to be honest about what's equired to solve Ottawa's homelessness problem.

On Thursday Coun. Mark Taylor, the mayor's liaison on homelessness, tabled a report calling for millions to be spent on 10 recommendations to spur on the official homelessness strategy.

When asked where the money would come from, he pointed to the federal government's national housing strategy. But it's not clear how the government wants that money to be spent.

All of the feedback will be collected as city staff spend the next year coming up with a new plan, and possibly a new goal, for the last five years of its housing and homelessness strategy.

'How are we doing? We don't know' 

A particularly hot topic was the housing first initiative, a cornerstone of the plan to end chronic homelessness.

City staff were accused of misrepresenting the success rate of the program at a mid-term checkup of the 10 year housing and homelessness plan.

We think that ... having people move in to supportive housing is a viable outcome for people.- Shelley VanBuskirk, director of housing services

"How are we doing? We don't know," said Alannah McBride, a research assistant from the University of Ottawa Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD).

IFSD looked at Ottawa's housing first strategy as a case study for a nation-wide examination of spending on homelessness.

The city has housed 519 people as part of its housing first initiative, and has seen 85 per cent of those people still housed after six months in the program according to the committee report.

But that's much higher than the IFSD's findings, which showed only a 66 per cent success rate after six months.

That's because the city includes some supportive housing programs in its evaluations — permanent housing with on-site services. McBride said those programs, while very valuable, do not actually qualify as "housing first."

"I think it's a difference of opinion," said Shelley VanBuskirk, the city's director of housing services.

"We think that ... having people move in to supportive housing is a viable outcome for people."

The city's new recommendations to curb homelessness will be tabled in 2019.