Closure of family homeless shelter worries advocates

A family homeless shelter in Ottawa's Mechanicsville neighbourhood is being forced to shut down permanently in coming weeks.

Mechanicsville shelter to shut down permanently

A shelter for homeless people in Ottawa is set to close before the end of the year. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The Forward Family Shelter in Mechanicsville — one of only two family homeless shelters in Ottawa — will close permanently in the coming weeks.

Shelley VanBuskirk, the director of housing services, announced the closure in an email sent to the city's community partners on Thursday evening. 

"Despite our best efforts to preserve the building, it is at the end of its lifecycle," VanBurskirk wrote, adding that the building does not meet the province's and city's accessibility requirements.

Originally built as a school in 1955, the city acquired and retrofitted the building in 1985 with the purpose of using it as a shelter. A memo sent to council members late Friday from Janice Burelle, the city's general manager for community services, said that the building needed $2.3 million in repairs.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney said she was surprised to learn of the shelter's closure.

"This was not a discussion that we have had as a council," she said. "While I understand staff have got delegated authority to take this action, this is something that is a city-wide issue … we've only got two family shelters and to close down one needed to be a much broader discussion."

Tipping point

McKenney said she attended an emergency meeting Friday morning with city staff and Coun. Jeff Leiper, who represents the areas where the shelter is located, and Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the community and protective services committee.

They were told the 14 families currently living in the shelter will be offered places to live in a new transitional housing development near South Keys. Three families currently have offers of affordable housing for Dec. 1. Although the city would like to close the shelter by Dec. 15, it will wait until all the families have other accommodations.

However, McKenney said she worries about the impact the shelter's closure will have on emergency facilities available to homeless families. She said there are about 200 families living in motels each night in Ottawa.

"We are at that tipping point in our city right now where families are not always assured of a roof over their heads," McKenney said. 

Low vacancy rate

"I was floored," said Marie-Josée Houle, executive director of Action Logement on learning the news.

"In combination with the announcement that the Ford government wants to remove rent control for all new construction, I think it was a pretty bad day for us yesterday, that's for sure," she said.

Houle said that Ottawa's low vacancy rate and the rising cost of rental accommodations will be make it difficult for struggling families to find affordable housing. 

Coun. Catherine McKenney said she and council were unaware the city planned to close the shelter. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

There are approximately 10,500 families waiting for subsidized housing in Ottawa.

"All of these pressures, all at once, have created this crisis," said Houle. "I think we need to talk about the housing crisis that's happening ... specifically in Toronto and Ottawa."