Ottawa

Salvation Army downtown shelter may be moving out

Mayor Jim Watson hopes one of three emergency homeless shelters operating within blocks of each other in downtown Ottawa will soon be able to close or move, and all signs point to the Salvation Army.

Mayor wants 1 of 3 downtown homeless shelters to close or move

The mayor wants one of Ottawa's three downtown homeless shelters to close or move, and Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre on George Street says it's open to exploring the idea. (Google Streetview)

Mayor Jim Watson hopes one of three emergency homeless shelters operating within blocks of each other in downtown Ottawa will soon be able to close or move, and so far signs are pointing to the Salvation Army.

Watson made the comments while addressing ByWard Market and Rideau Street businesses at a meeting on Monday, according to Livia Belcea, his press secretary.

The mayor said there are problems with the three shelters — the Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre, the Shepherds of Good Hope and the Ottawa Mission — operating so close to one another in a downtown environment that isn't necessarily the most consistent and supportive for homeless persons, Belcea said.

Watson also told attendees he had heard the Salvation Army might have a plan to move out, Belcea said.

No timeline was given, but Watson later clarified on social media that nothing would happen until more long-term supportive housing is in place.

By 2024 the city wants to see people staying at emergency shelters for 30 days or less, according to its 10-year plan on homelessness, based on the presumption that more long-term supports will be in place for people to use instead of emergency shelters.

Safety, operational concerns with Salvation Army

The Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre and the city have been at loggerheads in recent months due to safety and operational concerns, particularly after a homicide in October on the west side of the building on George Street.

Two safety audits had also been conducted by Ottawa police in the summer of 2016, which recommended that a number of improvements be made.

Rideau–Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said that in addition to residents feeling unsafe even walking by the shelter, he's also frustrated that the Salvation Army doesn't have a local board of directors, and that all decisions are made from Toronto.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury says the Salvation Army needs to do more to instil confidence in its operations. (CBC News)

"We struggle with that decision-making, and [with Salvation Army] headquarters in Toronto understanding the realities of Ottawa and what we're looking for and where we're going in terms of our 10-year homelessness plan," Fleury said in an interview.

While some safety improvements have been made, there is still "a congregation of drug users and dealers in and around the shelter," Fleury said, which he believes will continue as long as their current space remains open.

'We acknowledge that they would like us to move'

For years, the Salvation Army has been pondering the idea of opening a new emergency shelter designed and built exclusively for that purpose, along with other possibilities.

"We've heard the mayor and councillor loud and clear over the last few days. We acknowledge that they would like us to move from our present location, and we're constantly looking at those options as we move forward together. So it's positive, it's constructive, and we're happy to continue the conversation with them and our many partners," said Marc Provost, executive director of the Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre, in an interview.

Marc Provost, executive director of the Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre, says they're open to the idea of moving elsewhere, and that they've heard the mayor and Coun. Mathieu Fleury's wishes 'loud and clear.' (Steve Fischer/CBC)

But before a community would buy in to the idea of a new shelter somewhere else, Fleury said work would need to be done to improve the Salvation Army's reputation.

"The Salvation Army can be part of the solution, but it requires community involvement, it requires a new approach, and certainly it requires a transparency and openness that we haven't seen so far.

"When they are going to ... propose a new purpose-built shelter in a community, the community will point to the issues that we're seeing now in the ByWard Market and that we're seeing at the shelter," Fleury said, adding that the Salvation Army needs to "get their act together" to build trust.

Mike Bulthuis, executive director of Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, said the conversation isn't a surprising one, considering the significant renewal taking place downtown.

"In a sense this conversation isn't a surprise, and the kinds of the comments the mayor makes more generically are not a surprise. If the mayor wants to speak about the operations of one or another organization, I think that would need to be done very carefully. But certainly as a sector ... many of us hope that as a city we don't need the amount of emergency shelter beds that we need today, because right now that means there are over 1,000 people sleeping from night to night in a place that doesn't offer any permanence," Bulthuis said.

"If in five years we don't need three emergency shelters operating as they are today, then that would be great."

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