Ottawa

City warned of gaps in housing program before unit trashed

People familiar with the city's "housing first" program say they warned the city about gaps in the program long before a landlord discovered his unit trashed and crawling with maggots.

'It's not right. You're setting an individual, sometimes families, up to fail'

CBC News toured through the damages of an Ottawa landlord's home that was covered in rotting food, maggots and feces after a tenant lived there for seven months. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

People familiar with the city's "housing first" program say they warned the city about gaps in the program long before a landlord discovered his unit trashed and crawling with maggots.  

Program aims to house the homeless

Last week CBC News reported on landlord Nitin Mehra, who was recruited for one of the city's housing first programs, one that matches private landlords with homeless people who need a permanent place to live.

'It's disgusting in every possible way,' says Ottawa duplex owner Nitin Mehra after finding his fridge crawling with maggots earlier this month. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Research shows the housing first model is successful when combined with support services. But in Mehra's case, he had almost $8,000-worth of damage inflicted on his apartment by his tenant.

Mehra called the housing first program "botched" and said his tenant, who has mental health issues, did not receive the promised support.

The city told him they will pay the damages and have since launched an investigation into what went wrong. 

However, several people are reporting that, while there have been successes, there have also been many warnings the program needs improvement. 

Psychotherapist and housing first advocate Amanda Carver says she raised concerns with the city over its program last month. (Ashley Burke/CBC News )

'They need to then access food banks'

One issue is the city's allowance for housing first tenants, which is "not enough," according to Tina Slauenwhite, a housing manager with Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Housing is paid for through a city supplement, as well as tenant income. Under a true housing first model, only 30 per cent of a tenant's income should go toward housing.

You're setting an individual, sometimes families, up to fail.- Tina Slauenwhite, Housing Manager with Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health 

Many of Slauenwhite's clients' incomes come from Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program. Because the city pays just $250 in monthly rental subsidies, people on provincial assistance programs find they have to spend more than the recommended 30 per cent.

In comparison, the city gives emergency shelters more than $1,300 to house someone for a month. And in Edmonton, the supplement for the housing first program is up to $500 per tenant monthly.

"It's not right," said Slauenwhite. "You're setting an individual, sometimes families, up to fail."

Tina Slauenwhite is director of housing first at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health. She's been flagging problems to the city about the housing program since 2015. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Some of her clients are using 90 per cent of their income on housing, she estimates.

"They need to then access food banks, they need to access drop-in centres, different meal programs in order to survive. It's not placing an individual into housing with the resources," she said.

It can take housing coordinators at the Wabano Centre months to find homes for about $650 a month. Often, the only places such low-rent apartments are available are in the more troubled parts of Vanier, and Slauenwhite said her clients would like to live in other, more stable, neighbourhoods.

She has been asking the city for changes since the program since it launched in Ottawa several years ago, she said.

'The program is diluted'

Housing first advocate Amanda Carver emailed Mayor Jim Watson and the city's director of housing services in September raising concerns. 

Carver, a psychotherapist, was a co-organizer of last month's Ottawa Symposium on Housing First and Homelessness Prevention, which discussed the housing first model as an alternative to the Salvation Army's plan to open a 350-bed facility in Vanier.

During the symposium, frontline workers and other experts in the field raised concerns about cracks in Ottawa's program, said Carver. 
Housing first advocate Amanda Carver has concerns that housing first participants are being concentrated in Vanier instead of having access to affordable housing in other areas of the city. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A case manager visiting with a tenant once a week is not enough, she wrote in her email, urging that more support services are needed. 

"Otherwise, the program is diluted from its intended delivery model, and the results will not be as high as found in the [study]," wrote Carver. 

She asked the city to conduct something called a "fidelity assessment" to see if their program loyally follows the principles of housing first.

"It's about tightening things down to make sure we're doing things the right way," she said. 

The city told CBC News it has not conducted an "official fidelity assessment" on its housing first program, nor is there a requirement to do so from either the federal or provincial governments that provide the homelessness funding.

In fact, there are no national guidelines setting out standards for municipal housing first programs.

'We need more of it'

University of Ottawa professor Tim Aubry said he's met with the city multiple times over the years about housing first, including giving a presentation to Mayor Jim Watson and city councillors when it launched its program. 
Tim Aubry, a University of Ottawa psychology professor and a proponent of the 'housing first' model of tackling homelessness, say support services are the key to the program's success. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Aubry, was part of the seminal At Home/Chez Soi project on housing first in Canada which found that, in the last six months of the study, a substantial majority of tenants had found stable housing.

He said he recently told Coun. Mark Taylor — the mayor's special liaison on housing and homelessness — that the research shows the housing first model works, if done right.

"We need to do more of it, we're not doing enough of it in Ottawa," said Aubry. 

"Let's get on with getting more rent supplements. Let's get on with setting up a level of intensive support that can be combined in a way that's in line with the housing first model."

But, he added, "let's do it properly."

He said intensive support services are needed to transition chronically homeless people into their own homes and start working on their new life goals.

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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