City weighing new family shelter at auditor's urging

The City of Ottawa is considering building a new shelter for homeless families after the auditor general urged it to look at more cost-effective alternatives to the cramped hotel rooms many stay in now.

Housing homeless families in hotels unsustainable, Ken Hughes says

One of the rooms in the Ottawa Inn occupied by a homeless mother, her 12-year-old daughter and a two-month-old baby. Putting up a homeless family in a room like this one costs the city an average of $3,000 per month, the auditor general found. (Laura Osman/CBC)

The City of Ottawa is considering building a new shelter for homeless families, after the auditor general urged it to look at more cost-effective alternatives to the cramped hotel rooms many stay in now.

There are currently 282 homeless families staying in motel and hotel rooms paid for by the city, because purpose-built shelter spaces are full. Last year, 219 homeless families were sheltered in motels and hotels, spending an average of four months there.

The question is, at what point do you start to look at alternatives?- Ken Hughes, City of Ottawa auditor general

Families are often put up in one-room units with no kitchen.

The city spent $9.3 million to shelter families in motels in 2018 — for an average cost $3,000 per month per room — a cost that's more than doubled since 2016, according to the auditor.

"This is a very expensive arrangement compared to other alternatives," Ed Miner, Ottawa's deputy auditor general, told the city's audit committee Thursday. 

The city closed one of its two family shelters late last year, leaving room for only 44 families in its remaining family facility on Carling Avenue. Any additional families are either sent to stay at the YMCA, where there are another 83 rooms, or put up in motels. 

City auditor Ken Hughes urged the city to improve.

"The question is, at what point do you start to look at alternatives?" he asked. "In our mind, certainly before now."

City looking for better rates

City staff are now comparing the costs and benefits of a new shelter, and their business plan will be included in the city's refreshed strategy for combating homelessness early next year, housing director Shelley VanBuskirk said. 

Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh said she was glad to hear that, given the difficult living conditions families are enduring in motels. 

"It's something that we can see very clearly is problematic," she said. 

The city will also make motels compete to house homeless families in hopes of getting a better rate, including discounts for long-term stays. 

Ottawa Inn agreement probed

The recommendations come after Hughes and his staff looked at the contract for a group of apartment units being operated as for-profit family shelter spaces on Montreal Road. 

In 2013, the city expanded its agreement with the Ottawa Inn on Montreal Road to include another 40 or so units in nearby apartment buildings at a cost of about $3,000 per unit per month. 

The motel is one of the main providers of overflow family-shelter spaces in the city, receiving about 41 per cent of all the funds spent to put families up in rooms.

City-wide, the average monthly rent for a similar-sized apartment was $1,564 in 2018, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation — about half of what the city is spending to keep the families housed in the Vanier apartments.

The hotel's owner, Ahmed Ali Syed, bought and refurbished the units specifically for that purpose. 

Look inside an Ottawa Inn apartment

4 years ago
Duration 0:58
Manager Manzoor Ali Syed shows how these apartments are different from traditional motel rooms.

"There shouldn't be profit made on these arrangements," Kavanaugh told the committee after learning of the arrangement. 

The auditor found some families were placed into unapproved units without the city's knowledge. One unit had been renovated without a building permit, and two did not comply with the Ontario Building Code and/or city zoning rules. 

The Ottawa Inn denies the auditor's claims that the units did not comply with Ontario building code and city bylaws, and that renovations were undertaken without building permits.

In a statement to CBC, a spokesperson for the Ottawa Inn said the motel looks forward to competing in the city's new bid process.

Van Buskirk said the city won't be looking to house homeless families in any more apartment-style units as part of the competitive bid process, because the rental market is already so tight for low-income families.

The city has gradually reduced the number of families housed in Syed's apartment units from about 40 units to just 24. 

"We don't want to take any units off the market for that purpose," she said.

When CBC spoke to Mary last year, she was eight months pregnant and living in this motel room with her husband and two young daughters. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Feds fund shelter for asylum seekers

The city's shelter program has been under intense pressure as the number of homeless families grows. 

VanBuskirk said the increase is caused in part by the tight rental market, but also by an influx in the number of refugee claimants crossing the border into Canada from the United States. 

The federal government has reimbursed Ottawa $17.2 million to cover the cost of housing those families.

"I think the federal government is very open to continuing negotiations as we move forward," VanBuskirk said.