Why Ottawa can't spend its way out of the homelessness crisis

Overcrowded shelters. Families living in budget motels. People sleeping in the cold. This is Ottawa's growing reality, and it seems there's no spending our way out it.

It would cost nearly $2B to clear Ottawa's affordable housing wait list

Men sleep in the overflow dorm room at the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2018. The shelter says the room is full every single night. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Tonight, dozens of people in Ottawa will curl up in parks, next to building vents and in bank vestibules to try to catch a few hours of sleep.

Hundreds more will cram into overcrowded shelters. The lucky ones will get beds, but others will inevitably have to sleep on mats on the floor.

Children will get tucked into budget motel beds because the city's few family shelters are full.

This is Ottawa's reality, and despite doling out tens of millions of dollars each year to find suitable housing for the people who desperately need it, it seems there's no spending our way out of this.

Homelessness on the rise

Nearly halfway into Ottawa's 10-year homelessness plan, chronic homelessness has risen by 21 per cent in the city, due largely to the number of families enduring long stays in shelters and motels.

The overall number of overnight shelter stays has risen by more than 15 per cent.

"I think it's a crisis across Canada, and Ottawa is not immune to the experience of every large urban centre across the country," said Shelley Van Buskirk, the city's director of housing services.

"I think we need to do better for the people in our community who are experiencing homelessness."

It's not for lack of trying, or spending.

Combating homelessness in the capital cost taxpayers nearly $80 million in 2018, which paid for everything from emergency shelter beds to helping people pay rent and putting families up in motels.

The city has housed hundreds of people who had previously been homeless, but for every success story more people arrive to ask for help, and the need is much greater than what Van Buskirk's department can afford.

City council has asked her to put her finger on the amount of money needed to move the needle.

"I think it would be in the hundreds of millions," Van Buskirk said, and she isn't optimistic that money will materialize.

Affordability is expensive 

The city's strategy is based on the premise that it's cheaper to simply help people pay their rent than continue to house them in shelters, but there aren't enough homes to go around.

"Even if we can identify people who are ready to go into housing, there's not enough housing in the city," said Deirdre Freiheit, CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope.  

There's not enough housing in this city.- Deirdre Freiheit, the CEO of the Shepherds of Good Hope  

For some, the wait for affordable housing can take seven years.

Advocates have called for new affordable housing stock to ease the demand, but 6,500 units would be needed to clear the wait list in Ottawa, according to Ray Sullivan, executive director of Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, an affordable housing provider. 

By his estimate, that would cost about $2 billion: two-thirds of the City of Ottawa's entire annual budget. 

Teetering on the edge

Some people with mental health problems and addictions have long found themselves teetering on the edge of homelessness in Ottawa, but the housing market has recently made some of these situations even more precarious. 

Sara, 40, slept on a mat on the floor of the shelter for more than a month before she secured a proper bed. She came to Ottawa from Kingston, but didn't expect to spend much time at the homeless shelter.

"I came here and thought I could find an apartment within a few days, but that didn't work out so well for me," she said. She's been at the shelter on and off for about three months.

Sara sits on her bed at the Shepherds of Good Hope on Dec. 5, 2018. The 40-year-old has been living at the Murray Street shelter on and off for the past three months. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Part of the reason is the increasingly tight rental market, stretched by a huge influx of new immigrants and people coming to Ottawa from within Canada, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

Some of those people arrive homeless, unable to find a place to buy or rent. Those who can add to the competition for an increasingly short supply of housing.  

The rental vacancy rate for purpose-built rentals in Ottawa dropped to 1.6 per cent in 2018 according to CMHC's latest rental market report.

Rob Chief of Operation Come Home, an organization that helps homeless youth find places to live, noted the competition for apartments in Ottawa is fierce.

"Twenty-five other applicants besides ourselves were looking for space at this one unit," he said. "It really is a landlord's market."

Shelters overcrowded

Coupled with a more than five percent average increase in rent, people on low or fixed incomes are being squeezed out of their homes. Government assistance programs such as Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support program don't come close to paying the bills.

The result is clear: in November, the Shepherds of Good Hope saw the highest number of people staying at the shelter in its 35 year history, and the Ottawa Mission and Salvation Army both say they're over capacity.

The Shepherds of Good Hope has been operating in Ottawa for 35 years. In November 2018, more people stayed at the Murray Street shelter than at any other point in its history. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The news isn't all bad. The city has housed 819 of its longtime shelter clients since 2015, and the number of single men who've been homeless for more than six months dropped by 12 per cent since the city launched its strategy.

The city's goal is to eradicate chronic homelessness by 2024. Whether that's realistic or not, Van Buskirk said they have to at least try. She said the first step is to build more affordable places for people to live, and properly maintain the ones that already exist — something Ottawa has to catch up on.

"We have to be aspirational and say, 'This is what we need to do.'"


CBC has agreed to use the first name of the homeless person in this story because the stigma associated with homelessness may hamper her ability to find housing.