Business owner apologizes for petition to turn temporary shelter back into rec centre

The co-owner of a local business is apologizing after calling for an temporary COVID-19 shelter to be closed or moved out of his neighbourhood rec centre.

Robert Assaf called for Jim Durrell centre to revert to community use

Beds at a temporary isolation centre for vulnerable men at Ottawa's Jim Durrell Recreation Centre April 29, 2020. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The owner of a local business is apologizing after sparking a backlash by calling for a temporary COVID-19 shelter to be closed or moved out of his neighbourhood rec centre.

The Jim Durrell Recreation Centre on Walkley Road was converted into a shelter for single men without housing in May to allow them to safely keep their distance from others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robert Assaf, co-owner and president of Kardish Health Food Centre, urged the City of Ottawa in a petition to revert the centre, which includes two rinks, back to its original use.

"The residents of the community would like the use of their facility back and ask that the temporary self-isolation centre and emergency shelter for homeless men be closed or moved to another location," the petition read.

The petition drew 125 signatures, but also criticism on social media.

According to Assaf, it prompted colleagues, customers, family members and friends to reach out to him to express their frustration at what he called "advocacy for kids' recreational hockey facility reopenings."

"I've certainly heard the voice of the community and what I did was wrong," Assaf said in an at-times tearful interview with CBC News. 

"What's most important is not youth sports. What's most important is people in need."

Average of 45 to 50 men housed there

The city said in a statement that when the COVID-19 pandemic began, shelters were operating at capacity, using overflow beds to meet the high demand. That made it next to impossible for clients to follow physical distancing rules recommended by Ottawa Public Health.

To rectify that, over 100 beds were set up at the Jim Durrell centre. The City said an average of 45 to 50 men check in nightly to the facility, where they also have access to three meals a day and computers with internet access.

WATCH | A tour of the centre in late April

City to open recreation centre to relieve pressure on crowded shelter system

3 years ago
Duration 0:43
Jim Watson, mayor of Ottawa, and Shelley VanBuskirk, the city’s director of housing services, say converting the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre into a temporary shelter for homeless men will free up space in shelters and make physical distancing easier.

Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier, in whose ward the centre is located, said the extra shelter space is still needed to prevent an outbreak among homeless people.

"It was important because of the flare-ups and to reduce the risk of transmission that we provide additional space for these homeless persons to ensure that they have physical distancing," said Cloutier, referring to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Ottawa.

"I intend for the facility to continue to be used as a temporary overflow shelter for those who are homeless and who have been impacted by the pandemic."

The extra beds there and elsewhere have also relieved pressure on overcrowded shelters in the downtown core, including the Shepherds of Good Hope and Ottawa Mission.

Communications director Aileen Leo said the Ottawa Mission is under capacity for the first time in three years.

"Every emergency shelter bed in the shelter was full each night [with] somebody who needed it. Plus, we laid down to up to 20 mats in our chapel each evening for people who had nowhere else to go," said Leo.

"After [the Jim Durrell] centre was opened, we no longer had to do that."

A learning opportunity

Assaf said he didn't appreciate the complexity around the issues facing those who are precariously housed when he started the petition. He admitted to having "blinders on" and that doing so was "naive" and "tone deaf."

He's since released a public statement on the Kardish Health Food Centre website apologizing for "promoting youth sports over homelessness" and saying that he's stopped his advocacy on the issue.

Assaf said he hopes to turn the experience into an educational opportunity for himself and his family.

"I'm going to turn this into an opportunity to educate my kids on the homeless issues in this city," he said.

"I want to use it as an opportunity to do better."

Robert Assaf, co-owner and president of Kardish Health Food Centre, in a 2019 file photo. He has apologized after he created an online petition that urged the City of Ottawa to close down or move a temporary shelter out of the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Shelley VanBuskirk, director of housing with the City of Ottawa, said in an emailed statement that the shelter at the Jim Durrell complex remains a temporary solution as the City explores other ways to create extra capacity within the shelter system.

The goal, VanBuskirk said, is to find these men permanent homes.

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