No vacancy: More families placed in hotels as demand for shelter surges

More homeless families are set to join the hundreds already living in hotels and motels across Ottawa as demand for appropriate shelter space continues to surge.

City signs agreements with 6 more hotels, motels as shelter shortage intensifies

Matthew and Lacey’s daughter naps on the floor of their motel room. She was born two months premature and her parents say she's still struggling to gain weight. (Laura Osman/CBC)

More homeless families are set to join the hundreds already living in hotels and motels across Ottawa as demand for appropriate shelter space continues to surge.

Between 2014 and 2017, the number of chronically homeless families seeking shelter in Ottawa leapt by 143 per cent. In the past year alone, the city has signed agreements with six more hotels and motels to house homeless families — traditionally a last resort.

But with the recent closure of one of the city's two dedicated family shelters, the need for shelter space has far outstripped the supply. In 2016, there might have been 50 homeless families put up in hotels and motels on any given night. Now there are closer to 230.

Matthew, 30, lives in a damp basement room of a budget motel on Montreal Road with his girlfriend, Lacey, and their eight-month-old daughter.

The city offered them the room after their home was destroyed by September's tornado.

The family has been living in motels for three months, ever since their apartment was destroyed in September’s tornado. The city has told them they'll have to wait 12-18 months for subsidized housing. (Laura Osman/CBC)

There's just one small window and no kitchen. When he extends his arms, Matthew can nearly touch opposite walls. The first time he saw the room, he wept.

"I just started crying, fell on the bed," he said. "It was just the shock."

Matthew said the furniture was stained and smelled of urine before they replaced it with their own Ikea bed.

"I did a long time in prison, and I can't do time here," he said. "This is drastically worse."

There is nowhere in the room to boil water for the baby's bottles. Feeding themselves is just as difficult. Their diet has now been reduced to a single fast food meal per day.

'I’d rather do time in segregation in Kingston Penitentiary than live here,' said Matthew, a former inmate who’s living at the Ottawa Inn Hotel in Vanier with his girlfriend and their eight-month-old baby. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Scores of homeless families like Matthew's spend an average of nine months in places like this. That's not acceptable, according to Coun. Catherine McKenney, the mayor's newly appointed housing and homelessness liaison.

"It's not reasonable to expect that anyone can function properly living out of a motel," McKenney said. "Especially not families, especially not families with kids."

We cannot keep going down this road we're going down.- Coun. Catherine McKenney

The city pays about $3,000 per month to put a single family up in a hotel. This year, the city has overspent its budget by nearly $6 million to house homeless families.

McKenney believes that money would be better spent helping people pay their rent.

"We cannot keep going down this road we're going down," she said.

But to get a handle on the problem, the city also needs more dedicated shelter space, said Shelley Van Buskirk, director of housing services for the city.

The problem, predictably, is funding. "There's only a finite set of resources,"  Van Buskirk said.

Many of the families seeking shelter are coming from outside Ottawa. Some have arrived from small towns, while others have crossed illegally into Canada. 

Mary, eight months pregnant, is living in a motel room with her husband and two young daughters. The family, originally from Nigeria, crossed illegally into Canada from the United States. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Mary and her husband Soji said they fled their home in Nigeria when the head of their family wanted to circumcise their daughters, now nine and two. They crossed the border into Canada illegally from the United States.

Mary is eight months pregnant, so the family will soon grow to five. They had a crib delivered, but they don't have enough room to set it up. The girls sleep on the floor because they're afraid of bed bugs. 

Mary knows this is no place for a child. "There's no space for them to play and they can't go outside," she said.

Mary and Soji are expecting their third child in January, but there is no room in their hotel room to set up a crib. (Laura Osman/CBC)

And yet, there are families clamouring for a place like this, so many that the city has had to turn some away. Sometimes they're offered other assistance, such as transportation to other towns where they might have relatives who can help.

Sufficient settlement support for newcomers from the federal government would help ease the burden on the city and keep more families out of motels, Van Buskirk said. 

The city is also trying to expand its partnerships with community groups that offer shelter space.

Once a family enters the shelter system they go to the top of the list for affordable housing. For some, that can take more than a year.

All homeless families are offered a subsidy to help them afford market rent, but even that won't help many pay the bills in such an expensive market.

Stacey said he's been looking for a place for him and his 9-year-old son for five months.

Stacey and his 9-year-old son also live at the Ottawa Inn Hotel. They’re hoping the city will find them permanent housing before Christmas, but that's looking less and less likely. (Laura Osman/CBC)

In the meantime, they and their two dogs are living down the hall from Matthew and Lacey. 

The ceiling looks like it's about to collapse and there's a putrid stench that seems to be coming from the bathroom tiles.

Stacey tries to cook meals several times a week on a hot plate in the room.

"It's just very exhausting," Stacey said.

The ceiling in their motel room is badly damaged, and there's a foul odour that seems to be coming from the bathroom tiles. (Laura Osman/CBC)

He's hoping to find a new home before the holidays, but it hasn't been easy.

"The places that I've went and viewed, there's been no less than 15 families there viewing the same places," he said.

Christmas has always been a special time for Stacey and his son, but this year there's no room for a tree.

"It really is hard to get into the Christmas spirit," he said.

CBC has agreed to use first names, and in some cases, aliases, of the people in this story because they fear the stigma associated with homelessness may hamper their ability to find housing.


Laura Osman


Laura Osman is a reporter for The Canadian Press.