Ottawa

Pandemic shifting Ottawa's unhoused population onto streets, survey expected to show

The city and dozens of organizations are hoping to glean how the pandemic and various social stressors are affecting Ottawa's unhoused population, and where they are spending their nights.

2nd point-in-time homeless census involved about 50 agencies

Someone sleeps with their belongings on a downtown Ottawa street in early February 2021. As of the start of the year, the Salvation Army said it knew of about 190 people living on Ottawa's streets. (Brian Morris/CBC)

The city and dozens of organizations are hoping to glean how the pandemic and various social stressors are affecting Ottawa's unhoused population from a new survey. 

This is the second ever point-in-time homelessness survey, which is mandated by the Ontario government to be done every two years — but was delayed a year because of COVID-19.

"[Homelessness] is a complex issue," said Marc Provost, executive director of the Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre.

"So the more we understand, the more we know in real time what's going on, the better decisions we can make and this can also inform the policies. So that's really important."

The count, led by the City of Ottawa, involved approximately 50 agencies that include shelters, street outreach services, addiction and mental health programs, hospitals and the justice sector.

Over a period of 24-hours that began at noon Wednesday, the city and these organizations checked the streets, homeless encampments, emergency shelters, day programs and Indigenous agencies, along with other areas, to get a snapshot of Ottawa's homeless population.

'I think we're definitely going to be seeing more people who are sleeping rough and some of that is definitely related to the pandemic,' said Rob Boyd, Oasis harm-reduction program director at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The survey collects information on not only the number or homeless people, but their gender, health conditions, family composition, military service, Indigenous ancestry, child welfare experience, addiction and mental health issues, disabilities and the reasons contributing to their homelessness, said Paul Lavigne, program manager for homelessness programs and residential services with the city.

"This is the information to better understand the needs of people experiencing homelessness in Ottawa so that we can better design programs and services in the future."

Changing face of homelessness

When Mathieu Fleury entered politics 10 years ago, he said the leading demographic was white men over the age of 60.

"Now it's wide ranging," said the councillor for Rideau-Vanier, whose ward encompasses a number of the city's homeless shelters.

The 2018 survey found the Indigenous population was over-represented — making up 24 per cent of people surveyed while only making up 2.5 per cent of the city's population.

"Getting to interact with those on the street, in a more formal way through the surveys, understanding their stories, also allows me to better understand the picture of those who are unhoused in our city," said Fleury, adding it's particularly concerning to see the number of families living in motels paid for by the city.

"That to me is a tragedy," he said.

Pandemic effect

Part of the survey is being completed over the phone, through the city's 311 service, and is tailored to the "hidden homeless" — those who are couch surfing with friends, family, or even acquaintance, said Lavigne.

He said that while there has been a reduction in homelessness, there's also been a shift toward living on the streets, something other organizations are also seeing.

"I think we're definitely going to be seeing more people who are sleeping rough and some of that is definitely related to the pandemic, and people not wanting to be in the shelter system for fear of catching COVID-19," said Rob Boyd, Oasis harm-reduction program director at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

Rob Boyd is the Oasis harm-reduction program director at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

While the pandemic has strained many people's mental health, that effect is often more acute for marginalized and homeless populations who often have more severe symptoms, and face barriers to accessing services, he said.

He hopes the data will not only raise awareness to the scale of the homelessness crisis, but also spark political action to address the problem.

"Homeless services are quite overwhelmed right now, and so I think a better understanding of how large this population is who are requiring supports and services is really important."

Lavigne says he expects it to take days to just to collect the raw data from all the participating organizations. Results from the 2018 survey — collected in April — were released in October. 

With files from Spencer van Dyk and Radio-Canada's Nafi Alibert

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