Fleury accuses staff of trying to 'weasel' out of rules around homeless shelters

As the first of what promises to be three long planning committee days drew to a close Tuesday, the councillor for Vanier accused staff of trying to "weasel" its way out of following city rules on homeless shelters.

Only 30 of 164 public delegates spoke on Day 1 of 3-day planning meeting to consider Salvation Army complex

Dozens of residents have packed into Ottawa City Hall chambers for the first of three days of debate on a contentious Salvation Army facility proposed for the city's Vanier neighbourhood. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

As the first of what promises to be three long days of the planning committee drew to a close Tuesday, the councillor for Vanier accused staff of trying to "weasel" their way out of following city rules on homeless shelters.

Planning committee had already heard from more than 30 of the 164 people who signed up to speak to Salvation Army's controversial proposal for a 350-bed facility on Montreal Road in Vanier, when Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury tried to pin the planning staff down on what exactly constitutes a shelter.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury can't understand why staff refuse to concede there are more than four shelters in Vanier. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

According to an existing city policy, there are only supposed to be a maximum of four shelters in the Vanier ward. The city contends there are only four, but Fleury believes there are actually 12.

He pointed out that the city pays to use up to 14 rooms as family shelters in the Concorde Hotel (which is on the site of the Salvation Army's proposed complex) and the Ottawa Inn Hotel, both located on Montreal Road.

I continue to be astonished by the staff analysis on that specific matter, just to weasel through what is a cap on shelters.- Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury

"You don't seem to be considering them shelters," Fleury said to staff near the end of the eight-hour meeting.

The designation matters. If the motels, and other similar facilities in Vanier, were recognized as shelters, the new Salvation Army complex likely wouldn't be allowed. The proposal would also break another rule that states shelters have to be more than 500 metres apart. In this case, the Ottawa Inn would be too close to the Salvation Army's new project.

But the city planner told Fleury that both the hotels were considered, well, hotels under zoning rules. The planning department doesn't take into consideration how the city funds homelessness. In other words, even if the city uses the hotels as homeless shelters, the planners still consider them to be hotels.

"I continue to be astonished by the staff analysis on that specific matter, just to weasel through what is a cap on shelters," said a clearly frustrated Fleury.

The proposed Salvation Army shelter would replace the Concorde Motel at 333 Montreal Rd. in Ottawa's Vanier neighbourhood. (Submitted image, Judy Trinh/CBC)

Few stuck to planning issues

It was an exasperated end to a long day that started with Coun. Jan Harder, the chair of the planning committee, emphasizing that only comments about planning issues would be permitted. 

The Salvation Army project requires exemptions from City of Ottawa planning policies before getting the green light. Namely, shelters are not allowed on traditional main streets like Montreal Road, so the organization needs an exception from two separate planning policies.

Because Salvation Army's proposal is officially a planning issue, the committee is only supposed to consider planning rules. Harder specifically warned people not to talk about the social impacts of the project, the organization's funding arrangement or the city's housing first policy.

Her appeal fell on deaf ears. Most of the 30 public delegations — including the handful who spoke in favour of the proposal — found it almost impossible to separate Salvation Army's socially complex operations from technical planning points.

Right from the start, comments veered off in all sorts of directions.

Feared social impacts

Tim Aubry, a University of Ottawa professor, spoke to why the housing-first option is a better way to serve homeless men than what the Salvation Army is proposing.

Tim Aubry, a University of Ottawa psychology professor and a proponent of the 'housing first' model of tackling homelessness, believes the Salvation Army's proposal is on the wrong track. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Housing first, which is the currently favoured model by all governments for addressing homelessness, calls for people to be permanently housed as soon as possible, and offered the supports they need.

Businesses complained that the concentration of people with social issues is already making it difficult to succeed, leading some to claim they could only rent their properties to pot dispensaries and pay day loans operations. A number of them complained about crime, which they fear would be exacerbated if the Salvation Army opened its 350-bed complex.

The comments eventually led Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who sat in on the meeting even though she isn't on the planning committee, to say she was having "a bit of trouble" with some of the narrative she heard Tuesday. It was not her experience, she said, "that the vulnerable people bring down a neighbourhood." 

But that was exactly what most people wanted to talk about — the possible effects of a concentration of what one man characterized as "fragile and socially challenged" individuals in one community.

"I believe this development will stunt if not reverse the revitalization of Montreal Road, and Vanier more broadly," said Randall Bartlett, an economist and Vanier resident.

"Common sense tells you that when a large and concentrated institutional use is added to a traditional main street that has a pre-existing high concentration of social services, this leads to economic decline as opposed to development."

'It's downright negligent'

Some delegates did try to address technical planning issues, such as Natalie Raffoul, an engineer and lawyer. 

"As you know, official plans are mended for height and density on a regular basis, but an amendment for land use is rare," she said, referencing the city's foremost planning document. She went on to say that the Salvation Army's proposal includes surface parking on the main street, which is not allowed.

Ben Gianni, a Carleton University architecture professor, tells a City of Ottawa planning committee on Nov. 14, 2017, that it would be 'downright negligent' not to consider how a proposed 350-bed Salvation Army facility would affect the Vanier community. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Carleton University architecture professor Ben Gianni also started with planning issues, but then veered off a bit.

"City building is my business," he told councillors, "and Vanier is also my turf."

He spoke directly to the question of whether an exception should be made to allow a shelter on a traditional main street.

"I'm here to defend the official plan," Gianni told the committee, but then added: "Not to consider how a facility of this scale and this nature might affect the host community is beyond irresponsible. It's downright negligent."

Support from social agencies

Even supporters didn't stick to planning issues, giving weight to the argument that how property is used has an impact on the surrounding community.

Social agencies, including Ottawa Inner City Health, Action-Logement and the Shepherds of Good Hope, all spoke in favour of the Salvation Army's proposal, saying their services are needed in the city.

"It's not news to anyone here that there's not enough affordable housing," said Deirdre Freiheit,  the president and CEO of the Shepherds of Good Hope.

She also supported Salvation Army's model of what it calls "a continuum of care," locating emergency shelter, and addiction and life skills beds in one complex.

"When a person struggles with mental health, addiction and trauma, it's unrealistic to expect the same person to travel to multiple locations to access care," she said.

Planning meeting continues

The meeting continues on Wednesday, when councillors will have the opportunity to ask questions of Michael Polowin, a well-known planning lawyer who's been hired by two Vanier business people.​

The planning meeting will continue on Friday if necessary.