Councillor calling for state of emergency over homelessness

As women fleeing dangerous domestic situations are forced to sleep in their cars and languish in shelters, Coun. Catherine McKenney is calling for the city to declare a state of emergency over its ongoing housing crisis.

Coun. Catherine McKenney to file notice of motion Wednesday

Coun. Catherine McKenney wants the city to declare a state of emergency over its ongoing homelessness crisis. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Wendy Mitchell and her crew of volunteers help families escape mental, physical and financial abuse. But all too often, Mitchell says all they're really doing is delivering them from one precarious housing situation to another.

"They're dilapidated buildings that are just so old and falling apart and have so many issues and just dirty and smelly and all that kinds of stuff," said Mitchell, the chapter director at Ottawa's Shelter Movers, a charity that aims to help women escape unsafe domestic situations and start a new lives in new homes.

But the chronic lack of affordable housing in Ottawa makes that job difficult. 

With the city's rental vacancy rate hovering around 1.5 per cent, women lucky enough to find a bed in one of the city's five shelters often stay there for months because there's nowhere else for them to go.

Even though women fleeing dangerous situations move to the front of the line for affordable housing, they can still wait years.

"We're just trying to get people to safety, and we can't if there's a bottleneck," Mitchell said. 

Wendy Mitchell is director of the Ottawa chapter of Shelter Movers, a charity that helps women escape violent homes. (submitted)

Declaring an emergency

"It really does speak to the overall emergency that we have happening in this city," said Coun. Catherine McKenney.

At Wednesday's city council meeting, McKenney will give notice of a motion to declare a state of emergency over Ottawa's homelessness crisis.

McKenney said the aim is to convince council to accept that an organized, multi-governmental plan of action is what's needed to turn the situation around.

"Things are only getting worse. We know that our shelters are overflowing. We know people aren't able to find affordable housing, and while shelters for domestic violence are a responsibility of the province, we still do have a role to play," McKenney said.

Currently, there are 12,000 people on the waiting list for social housing in the city. Ottawa Community Housing moves about 2,000 into new homes in a typical year, but there are always names added to the list.

That long wait has an impact on women attempting to leave a domestic abuse, and as McKenney notes, that's where the women's shelter file and the affordable housing file collide.

This room at the Ottawa Inn was home to a mother, her 12-year-old daughter and two-month-old baby. (Laura Osman/CBC)

"It's heartbreaking to think of a mom pulling her kids out of school, having to move into a different community, having to sleep in their cars. It really does speak to the overall emergency that we have happening in this city," McKenney said. 

Any solution must involve all three levels of government, McKenney said.

"A city, with the property tax base, will never be able to end homelessness. We'll never really be able to take on the challenge of housing unaffordability or poverty reduction. We need other levels of government that are responsible for income redistribution, that have the resources."

McKenney's motion is expected to be discussed at council's first meeting of 2020 in January.


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