More women over 50 seeking shelter, homelessness report finds

The number of people who used emergency shelters in Ottawa continued to rise last year, with greater increases among families and older women, according to a report that provides an annual snapshot of homelessness in the city.

While more single men also used the city's shelters, the report notes their stays are shorter

A homeless man begs for change at the Mackenzie King OC Transpo station in Ottawa. (Christian Milette/CBC)

The number of people who used emergency shelters in Ottawa continued to rise last year, with greater increases among families and older women, according to a report that provides an annual snapshot of homelessness in the city.

In total, 7,170 people stayed at a shelter at some point in 2016, up 5.2 per cent from the year before.

The Alliance to End Homelessness released its annual report this morning.

It describes some improvements over 2015: more affordable units were built in the city and more households received rent subsidies, for instance.

It also suggested headway is being made to find permanent housing for single men: their average shelter stay dropped from 65 nights in 2014 to 61 nights in 2016.

But there are concerning trends among families, older women and teens that need attention, according to the Alliance's executive director Mike Bulthuis.

Otherwise, the City of Ottawa's 2013 strategy to eliminate homelessness could go off-track, he said.

"The ten-year plan needs to respond a little bit more to these emerging issues that we see and develop some customized or targeted approaches as we have for single men," said Bulthuis.

But while Bulthuis would like to see the city recommit to spending $4 million to build new housing — something it hasn't done in a few years — he said it will be up to all levels of government and the community to address homelessness and the many different types of people it affects.

The federal government is set to increase funding for housing and release a national housing strategy this year and the Ontario government is looking at reforming social assistance and instituting a basic income pilot program, the report noted.

More women 50+ seek shelter

The 2016 snapshot found 328 women over the age of 50 sought shelter, up 20 per cent from 273 older women in 2015. Women over age 60 were staying longer than in previous years: 86 nights on average in 2016.

Ottawa's population is aging in general, and the women who show up at Cornerstone Housing for Women's emergency shelter are no different.
Sue Garvey is executive director of Cornerstone Housing for Women. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Some may have lived at the edge for some time and need more help with the onset of health problems or dementia, suggested Cornerstone's executive director Sue Garvey. 

"Or, maybe they just can't continue to scrape together the pennies to make the rent as the rent goes up, and so they become more vulnerable as they age," said Garvey.

That said, Garvey sees some projects on the horizon that will provide affordable housing and supports that people need in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, the number of families in shelters rose to 879 in 2016, up 12.5 per cent from 781 families the year before.

Ottawa's family shelters are full, the report noted, so about $4.5 million in 2016 was spent to house families in motels.

The number of young people aged 16 to 25 staying in youth shelters actually dropped by 100 people in the last year, to 287 from 387, but those who did use the beds stayed much longer: 47 nights instead of the average of 32 in 2015.

The report also expressed concern that a greater proportion of those youth are 16 or 17 years old.

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  • An earlier version of this article quoted incorrect information from the Alliance's report about the amount spent to house families in motels. It cost $4.5 million in 2016, not more than $1 million per month.
    Apr 11, 2017 6:45 PM ET