Ottawa plan to end homelessness falls flat at half-way mark

Ottawa has seen a dramatic increase in the number of homeless families, while only managing to remove 23 people from the shelter system.

Only 23 fewer chronically homeless people in Ottawa since plan started

A homeless man begs for change at the Mackenzie King OC Transpo station in Ottawa. (Christian Milette/CBC)

Nearly halfway through the city's 10-year mission to end chronic homelessness, it appears no closer to its goal.

Ottawa has seen a dramatic increase in the number of homeless families, while only managing to remove 23 chronically homeless people from the shelter system.

The city released a mid-term report card of sorts on Thursday, and grades were mixed.

It exceeded many of its targets for providing housing subsidies and building affordable housing units.

But there has been a 143 per cent increase in the number of chronically homeless families since 2014, with 236 in shelters for more than a month last year.

Chronic homelessness decreased only five per cent among singles in the shelter system.

Housing first success unclear

A major cornerstone of the city's plan to tackle the problem is the housing first initiative.

The program gives long-time shelter users a place to live and provides support services, including regular visits from case workers. The idea is to see those people eventually become self sufficient and pay their own rent.

The program has housed 519 households — more than double the number the city hoped for.

The report did not include the number of people who've successfully graduated from the program, and the city wasn't able to immediately provide the information Thursday evening.

On Friday the city said so far, 333 are still actively enrolled in the program and 151 participants have graduated.

Difficult to track

It can be difficult to track what happens to people once they leave the program, according to Shelley VanBuskirk, the city's director of housing services.

Ideally, we'd be able to verify their housing status.- Shelley VanBuskirk, Ottawa's director of housing services

"Ideally, we'd be able to verify their housing status," she said. "It's very difficult to connect with them."

The city doesn't know, for example, if people are able to keep themselves afloat financially long-term once they leave the program.

The city confirmed on Friday that at least 14 former participants in the program have returned to the shelter system, and is trying to get those people back into permanent housing. Another eight have died.

The city spends $9.1 million each year on its housing first initiative, which was first adopted by the city in 2008 and overhauled in 2014.

A self assessment of the program revealed inadequacies as recently as last year, including long wait times and insufficient subsidies.

Staff plan to review how the housing first model is working in the future, the report said.

Outside city's control

Keeping chronically homeless people out of the shelter system was thought to be cheaper for the government in the long run.

The city hoped to save money by diverting people from shelters, allowing it to reinvest the savings into more supports to keep people in their homes.

The city was able to do that in 2015 when it found about $1 million in savings, but it's been challenging for the last few years because of increased demand for shelter services.

Ray Sullivan, executive director of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, said some of the factors driving up the number of people facing chronic homelessness are outside the city's control.

"One of the biggest challenges is the social and economic factors that shape these things are outside the city's control," said Ray Sullivan, executive director of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation. He also sits on the city's housing working group.

He pointed to the employment rate, the cost of regular rental housing and social factors that are common in the homeless population.

"Those are things that are difficult for the city to tackle on its own," he said.

This year the city will review the progress it has made so far, and consult with homelessness experts and service providers in the city to chart a way forward through the next five years of the plan.  

The timing is good, considering the city will soon start to receive funds from the recently announced national housing strategy and provincial long-term affordable housing strategy

The community and protective services committee will consider the progress made so far on March 22.