Everything you need to know for this week's Salvation Army debate

This week the City of Ottawa's planning committee is set to hear from more than 145 people over a three-day meeting over Salvation Army's controversial proposal for a new 350-bed facility on Montreal Road in Vanier.

Salvation Army proposal will be discussed at planning on Nov. 14, 15 and 17

An artist's rendering of a proposed new Salvation Army facility on Montreal Road in Vanier is physically an improvement over the George Street location. (Salvation Army)

It's a planning application that sparked loud protests, precipitated petitions with 4,000 signatures and, at last count, galvanized more than 145 people to sign up to speak at a three-day planning committee meeting starting Tuesday morning.

The Salvation Army's proposal for a new 350-bed facility on Montreal Road in Vanier is the most contentious file to come to the planning committee in recent memory, since the multi-day meeting where residents railed for days, seven years ago this week, over the redevelopment of the former Westboro convent.

This time, though, the stakes are even higher.

This planning file isn't the usual battle over familiar issues like the heights of condo towers or traffic-impact and shadowing studies. On the surface, it's about whether a shelter can be located on a main street, something that's not usually allowed.

But at its core, this proposal is about the best way to help 350 of the city's most vulnerable men and how that might impact the surrounding community. In other words, it's about our shared humanity and how we live together.

And awkwardly, this deep social debate is happening at the planning committee.

Don't call it a mega-shelter

From the moment the Salvation Army announced its plan to invest $50 million in a new 350-bed campus back in June, it's been fighting the perception that this amounts to a mega-shelter.

Here is what the Salvation Army is actually proposing:

  • 140 emergency shelter beds (10 fewer than at its current George Street location).
  • 20 beds for addiction stabilization (a pre-requisite to the addiction program).
  • 30 beds for addiction recovery (Anchorage program).
  • 30 beds for the men's work program.
  • 42 beds for a new "flex program" (to help homeless men with developmental challenges).
  • 28 beds for residential life skills program .
  • 60 beds for medical care (to be run by Ottawa Inner City Health).

That would add an additional 120 beds for homeless men than the Salvation Army offers today in its current programming. 

The Salvation Army has a conditional deal to purchase 333 Montreal Rd., the current home of its Thrift Store and the Concorde Motel, which the city uses as a family shelter. (Laura Osman/CBC)

The new campus proposed for the northwest corner of Montreal Road and Ste. Anne Avenue would also include an internal courtyard for recreation — a dignified improvement over today's scenario where shelter clients have nowhere to hang out other than the George Street sidewalk — and a café​, where people from Salvation Army's life skills program could work. 

And the organization plans to locate other programs at the complex too, such as community and family services (think emergency food, clothing and transportation help). 

The Salvation Army has a conditional deal to buy the property, the current location of its Thrift Store and the Concorde Motel, which the city uses as a family shelter.

Concentration conflict

One of the key criticisms against the plan is concentration: there are simply too many vulnerable people proposed for a single site. ("More beds than the Montfort Hospital!" some members of opposition group SOS Vanier have shouted at public meetings.)

The Salvation Army's proposed facility in Vanier has sparked almost unpredecented opposition. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Because the Salvation Army is not going to offer alcohol or drug-consumption services on its site, some worry the clients who might be looking to drink alcohol or use drugs will do so in the nearby streets. The concern is an increased demand for drugs, especially, will bring more drug dealers to a neighbourhood already struggling with drugs and other crime.

There's real reason for concern: police are often called to the Salvation Army on George Street. Only this month, police dealt with a stabbing related to the shelter.

But Salvation Army officials say that bringing together all of its programs will allow them to offer a "continuum of care." A man with addiction issues, for example, will be able to move from the emergency shelter to one of the addiction programs without having to adjust to a new location. 

Marc Provost, the executive director of the Salvation Army, calls that a "warm transfer", where a worker in one program can physically bring a client to another program, introduce him to new people and check up on him later. As well, says Provost, some men in the shelter can be inspired to stay the course by seeing someone they know improving in another program. 

Not a NIMBY issue, says councillor

There's another type of concentration that critics worry about, too: Vanier has more social service agencies, shelters and residential care homes than any other community.

"This is not a NIMBY issue, because it's already been in our backyard," Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury says.
Coun. Mathieu Fleury says the community's opposition to the project isn't a case of NIMBY-ism, as Vanier is already home to more social services than any other ward. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

No one disputes this fact. Supported-living residences, group homes, de facto shelters, social-service centres and the halfway house generally draw less opposition in Vanier than in many other communities. 

Salvation Army says half of its community and family services clients are from the area. Critics counter that doesn't mean it should locate all its services in one place. 

In fact, the city has already implicitly agreed with the concept that some living situations should not be concentrated. That's why there are policies that don't allow halfway houses to be located next to schools, don't allow more than 10 people to live in group homes, and don't allow for those homes to be less than 500 metres apart.

The worry over the concentration of social services in Vanier isn't new. Back in 2008, council took a deeper look at the issue and voted in favour of a policy that there will be no additional shelters in Vanier and no ward should have more than four shelters.

City staff says that because the Salvation Army wants to move within the ward, the project doesn't represent an additional shelter. But, as Fleury points out, "there are actually 12 known facilities that are functioning as 'shelters' based on the city definitions."

Outmoded model?

There are few other Canadian examples for shelters and other short-term housing programs like the one being proposed by the Salvation Army.

For critics, it's the lack of more permanent housing that is a key problem. Every level of government supports the so-called housing-first model, which calls for housing homeless people as soon as possible and then providing them with the social supports they need. 

Even the city's community health and resource centres are against the plan. A coalition representing the 13 centres from across the city wrote a letter expressing that, while it appreciated the work the Salvation Army does, the "services proposed … do not appear to be in line with what are considered current best practices."

The Salvation Army officials bristle at the suggestion that they aren't part of the housing-first model. 

Marc Provost, the executive director of the Salvation Army, says the proposed facility would offer a continuum of care for clients. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

"Our goal is to house people as soon as possible," says Provost. But there isn't enough housing for everyone who needs it, he adds.

According to the Salvation Army, it's permanently housed 167 people since April 2014. Most of them have not returned to the emergency shelter system.

Planning policies at play

But almost all these issues — whether Salvation Army's model is the best way to help homeless men, whether the concentration of social services is too high in Vanier, what sort of social impact the project would have on the community — shouldn't even be part of the discussion this week.

Technically, the Salvation Army proposal is at the planning committee because it requires both an official plan amendment and a rezoning.

The official plan is the city's high-level blueprint for how development should unfold across the capital. The plan does not permit shelters on traditional main streets, including Montreal Road. And the zoning for that area does not permit a shelter either. So the Salvation Army hired FOTENN, the city's most prominent planning consultants, to apply for exemptions to both these planning policies.

"This is a planning application and it's being dealt with as a planning application," says Coun. Jan Harder, the chair of the planning committee. She says councillors are there to listen and keep an open mind, but if a comment "isn't relevant to planning applications, then it's going to be considered out of order."

Easier said than done.

What makes a community livable?

Some complaints that we've heard — that property values would drop because of the complex, for example — are clearly out of bounds. But others won't be so clear cut.

FOTENN argues that the Salvation Army's project should be approved in spite of the existing policies because it fulfills the official plan's stated goal of creating a "livable community," which the plans says includes  "appropriate housing at a price people can afford."

But what makes a community livable, and even what constitutes appropriate housing, is subjective. If the Salvation Army is going to discuss the concept of livability, then residents must be allowed to as well.

And while planning policies naturally cannot speak to specific groups of people, whether it's seniors or students or the homeless, they do take into consideration the effects of how certain properties are used.

A 2004 decision of the Ontario Municipal Board, which hears planning appeals, stated that it's appropriate to consider "the type of activity to be generated by the use, the intensity of that activity, and whether the neighbourhood context and the use are compatible, one to the other."

In other words, it's about whether a shelter is appropriate for a main street.

These are very pragmatic policy tools to answer a deep, and troubling, question about how we balance concern for others with concerns about safety, questions about what the right way to actually help others might be. The term "planning" doesn't really capture it.

But for this week, that's all we've got.

Current clients of the Salvation Army's shelter on George Street have nowhere outdoors to hang out. The new facility would offer them an interior courtyard. (Google Streetview)


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.