There seems to be no end in sight for a city-run program meant to provide temporary, stop-gap solutions for those in need of emergency shelter — placing them in hotels and motels across Ottawa — despite the millions in yearly costs and ongoing criticism from homeless individuals and city councillors.
Those who live in the temporary accommodation say they’re stuck in tight living quarters for months, if not years, at a time, which are often unclean and sometimes filled with pests such as cockroaches.
One tenant likened it to living in “jail.”
Since 2014, the city has placed nearly 21,000 chronically homeless families and individuals in hotel and motel rooms — many who are waiting for an opening with Ottawa Community Housing (OCH), which provides subsidized townhouses and apartments for low-income tenants at steeply discounted rent.
The wait time for a unit is often years long (the record is 21 years) with approximately 12,000 people on the city’s social housing registry.
Some have no choice but to turn to the city’s shelter system. The city owns and operates one family shelter and funds three community shelters. When those are at capacity, people are placed in one of 23 hotels, motels and post-secondary institutions that have agreements with the city — with the city-run program costing more than $12 million per year since 2017.
‘Not really a living space’
In the eight months Kristelle Duquette’s family has been on the wait-list for OCH, they’ve been placed in at least four different locations. Because of safety concerns, the family hasn’t been able to stay in one room for very long.
Duquette, her 16-year-old son Miguel and 14-year-old daughter Annabelle, are currently staying at the Econo Lodge on Rideau Street in downtown Ottawa.
They’re among the approximately 300 households placed in such an arrangement each night throughout the pandemic, according to the city.
They first reached out to the city after Duquette’s mother died, with whom they had been living.
Now they share a room with two queen-sized beds for the three of them.
“My kids are just, all day long, just sitting there,” said Duquette, pointing to the bed.
Every time that [my kids] want to have a friend over, they can’t because it’s embarrassing. It’s very embarrassing, even for me.
In one corner, plastic bins are piled up holding the family’s belongings. In the other corner sit several large garbage bags full of clothes.
“It’s like being in jail,” Duquette told CBC a few days earlier. At the time, she was visiting a friend at The Richmond Plaza Motel, where she used to stay.
“Very stressful. It’s dirty. It’s not really a living space that anybody would want to be in at all,” she said.
In the room, Duquette said her teenage son and daughter have no privacy. There’s a microwave and a small fridge. Other cooking appliances aren’t allowed.
That’s the case at most of the places the family has stayed.
Also common, Duquette said, are cockroaches and bed bugs.
“Every time that [my kids] want to have a friend over, they can’t because it’s embarrassing. It’s very embarrassing, even for me,” she said.
“We were ecstatic,” said John, a former resident and employee of the Richmond Plaza Motel before becoming a resident of OCH at the end of 2020. CBC has agreed to conceal his identity because he fears the possible repercussions for speaking out.
“If you can imagine, it’s a step up from the shelter in that you have a bit of privacy here.”
John, his family, and their two dogs had moved back to Ottawa from Thunder Bay, Ont., with nothing but their car and a few of their belongings.
A hotel room, they were told, was the only way to keep everyone together. John said it felt like an opportunity to get their lives back together.
But much like Duquette, John said the living conditions weren’t fit for a family to live in for any length of time, let alone two years.
“It’s institutional. There’s four concrete walls and a steel door,” he said.
“But because of the situation you’re in and you’re financially in the way you’re in, where do you go? I mean, what do you do?”
Program costs millions
The number of people experiencing homelessness and in need of emergency shelter has steadily grown in Ottawa. In 2014, just under 2,000 individuals had stayed at least one night in a city-paid hotel or motel room. In the last eight years, that number has jumped by 50 per cent, and the time spent in these off-site shelters has also grown.
Six years ago, the average stay was just over three months. In 2020, that grew to about six months, dropping slightly to about five months in 2021.
Still, some of the tenants CBC spoke with expected to be there for more than a year.
Between 2017 and 2020, the cost to the city for the motel and hotel rooms more than doubled from $7.5 million to $16.5 million. It did fall to $8.3 million in 2021, but the city said that is because fewer families stayed in off-site shelters, on average. The city was also able to negotiate different rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some cases, the city still pays a rate of $110 per night for families to stay in one of these rooms. When it’s for just a few days, that cost makes sense, said Ottawa city councillor Mathieu Fleury, who also chairs the OCH board.
When individuals and families are staying for months, sometimes years at a time, he says the cost equals what one would typically pay in the private rental market.
“If the city is not willing to invest the same amount in new housing that it is spending on motels and shelters, we’re going to, as taxpayers, continue to spend a lot more money on emergency situations, which give us very poor outcomes,” he said.
The tenants CBC spoke with, including Duquette, agreed the city should spend more on private apartments for families in need of a place to live instead of a stop-gap solution.
“It’s so much better for a routine. For everything,” said Duquette.
City wants to end program
City staff declined a request for an interview with CBC for this story, but sent an email statement saying: “The use of hotels, motels and post-secondary residences for temporary emergency accommodation is a complex issue with many contributing factors.”
Ottawa’s shelter system has a fixed capacity and “the number of households requiring placement has necessitated entering into agreements with off-site hotels, motels, and post-secondary residences to accommodate the need,” wrote Saide Sayah, the city’s director of housing services.
He said the needs of tenants, from family size to pets, and sometimes accessibility needs, means off-site shelter options are limited. The statement did not speak directly to the conditions of hotels and motels some clients are placed in.
As well, every family who enters the shelter system is offered a portable housing benefit, Sayah said, which helps pay for the cost of a unit in a private market. This is paid for by the city and the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
According to the city’s website, the city also enters into contracts with private landlords to provide units where renters only need to pay 30 per cent of their own income. However, there are just 3,500 of these units available across Ottawa.
The city provided more than 3,000 rent supplements and more than 1,000 portable housing allowances by the end of 2021, Sayah wrote.
He finished by writing that the city “is committed to providing a safe space for households in need and would like to move away from using hotels and motels as temporary emergency accommodations.”
With an ongoing housing crisis, he said “this has not been possible” because of the lack of affordable housing options and increased demand.
He said the city “continues to maximize its available resources” and work with provincial and federal governments to provide more options for people in need.
Wait time up to 21 years
People will likely continue to be placed into hotel and motel rooms as the demand for shelter and affordable living greatly outpaces supply. When it comes to those in line for subsidized living, such as OCH, “the range of wait times varies from one day to 21 years,” according to another city statement.
Those wait times depend on what kind of unit a person or a family needs. People fleeing domestic violence or experiencing homelessness can expect to wait between two months to just over a year.
For most others on the list, the average wait is at least five years.
Last year, the City of Ottawa laid out a decade-long plan to spend nearly $200 million to build affordable housing.
It said it needed nearly $565 million over 10 years so OCH and other local partners can build 500 units a year, and another $30 million to build two new shelter facilities — one for families and one for women.
The housing corporation does have some new projects in the works in the hopes of expanding its portfolio, including downtown, in Barrhaven and on Mikinak Road east of downtown.
OCH itself has a 10-year redevelopment plan, which will see the construction of 3,000 homes over the next decade. Officials say it could provide housing for 10,000 people over the next few years if they secure funding from provincial partners.
CBC Ottawa is taking a deep dive into the persistent issues that plague those in need of and living in community housing where tenants experience ongoing violence, trauma and inadequate living conditions that seem to have no actual solution.Through conversations with dozens of current, former and hopeful tenants, community workers and Ottawa Community Housing itself, financial, legal and other requested documents reveal why the housing provider is part of the problem but not the problem itself.