Families, newcomers seeking shelter now more than ever

As the City of Ottawa takes stock of its homelessness crisis and forms a new 10-year housing strategy, one of the most alarming trends that's emerging is the rapid rise in the number of families seeking shelter in motels.

On a typical night, 350 families are staying in motel rooms paid for by the city

CBC spoke with Matthew, a former inmate who was living at the Ottawa Inn with his girlfriend and their 8-month-old baby, in December 2018. On a typical night, 350 families seek shelter in motel rooms paid for by the city. (Laura Osman/CBC)


  • Council approved the updated 10-year housing and homelessness plan at its July 15 meeting.

As the City of Ottawa takes stock of its homelessness crisis and forms a new 10-year housing strategy, one of the most alarming trends that's emerging is the rapid rise in the number of families seeking shelter in motels.

On a given night, 350 families are placed in motel rooms paid for by the city, some of them staying there for months at a time. There are four times the number of chronically homeless families now than there were just six years ago, city staff say.

"It's a key area for us to focus on," said the city's housing director, Shelley VanBuskirk. "A hotel room is no place to raise a family."

On Thursday, the city's community and protective services committee approved an updated plan for tackling that problem, and the wider issues of homelessness and affordable housing, over the next decade. The goal of the strategy is to reduce homelessness in Ottawa by 25 per cent.

City staff are calling it a "roadmap" to steer Ottawa away from the housing emergency declared by council in January, the first major update to its housing strategy since 2014. The city will also help Indigenous groups come up with a 10-year strategy of their own.

While the number of individual men, women and youth using shelters has decreased slightly in recent years, significantly more families and newcomers are relying on them.

VanBuskirk said the increase in newcomers using shelters is due largely to refugee claimants crossing into Canada from the United States in recent years.

"The face of our shelters is changing," VanBuskirk said.

Mary fled Nigeria and arrived in Canada as an irregular boarder crosser. When CBC spoke with her in December 2018, she was eight months pregnant, living in a two-bed motel room with her husband and two young daughters. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Range of options

Ottawa has been experimenting with various policy changes to move people into permanent housing, staff told the committee.

Ottawa set aside $15 million in its 2020 budget for new living units. Two-thirds of that is earmarked for Ottawa Community Housing, while $2 million is reserved for preparing city-owned sites on Heatherington Road and at LeBreton Flats for affordable housing. The rest could go toward buying a hotel that can be converted into more stable housing.

Meanwhile, city planning staff are working on how to require builders to include affordable housing near LRT stations, something called inclusionary zoning. A proposed bylaw will come next year with the new official plan.

The 10-year housing strategy also suggested exploring a community-owned land trust, which sees land acquired and preserved for affordable housing. Housing liaison Coun. Catherine McKenney floated the idea of using a $7.5-million contribution from a tower project at 900 Albert St. for such a cause.


$1B needed

Another worrying trend is the dramatic rise in rent, which rose to an average of $1,302 per month in 2019. That has some groups urging the city to maintain as many units as possible within non-profit, publicly owned buildings.

"We can't build our way out of this crisis if we are not also going to ensure that housing costs are remained at an affordable level," said Kaite Burkholder Harris of the Alliance to End Homelessness of Ottawa.

Over the coming decade, the city is aiming to create 300 to 570 new units per year at a cost of $60 million per year, two-thirds of which it hopes will come from the federal and Ontario governments. The city is also calling for an extra $38 million per year from those upper levels of governments for subsidies, supportive housing and other operating costs.

Beyond that, the city says $45 million in one-time funding, shared among all three levels of government, would help move families out of motels.

This room in an Ottawa motel was occupied by a homeless mother, her 12-year-old daughter and two-month-old baby. (Laura Osman/CBC)

That brings the total cost of the city's 10-year housing strategy to more than $1 billion.

It's a tall order, and city staff acknowledge funding from upper levels of government is unpredictable. Currently, municipal property taxpayers cover more than half the cost of building and running housing programs.

"It is ambitious. We are not going to succeed without funding from other levels of government, but we have a moral, ethical and legal obligation to people who are not housed in this city to house them," McKenney said.

The 10-year plan goes to city council for approval on July 15.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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