Saturday, April 08, 2006

Homeless Left Out in Cold Ottawa

Freeman was sick, addicted, homeless.

She shuttled between rooming houses where the vulnerable are preyed on for sex, money and their few possessions.

She hid from her four children.

In a shelter, she was driven to despair. Sleepless because of bedbugs and facing crack addicts on its doorstep, she started cutting herself to numb the pain.

"Without a home, without a place that's yours, you can't even dream," the 42-year-old said simply.

Today, she's living in her own place -- a Gloucester condo owned by the Canadian Mental Health Association -- and is surrounded by a tight-knit support network. She mentors young women with mental illnesses and teaches professionals how to treat people like her with compassion.


The kind of help that's allowed Freeman to recover and thrive is in desperately short supply.

That's why the Alliance to End Homelessness gave Ottawa a C+ yesterday on its progress to end the growing problem since the first report card a year ago.

Small steps forward aren't enough, advocates argued, pointing to the 8,853 people -- about 1% of the city's population -- who used emergency shelters in 2005.

Likely thousands more sleep in cars or on friends' couches.

"It's time to make homelessness a priority," said Alliance to End Homelessness co-chairwoman Mary-Martha Hale. "All that is needed to make homelessness a priority is political will from politicians at all levels of government."

There has been "slight progress," advocates say.

Welfare and disability payments rose 3% in Ontario last year after being frozen for a decade and the minimum wage increased. Market rents decreased slightly.

Fewer families are waiting for social housing and the people using shelters on any given night dropped -- from 932 to 880 -- because average stays got shorter.

But advocates argue governments have to take bolder action to solve a simple math problem: Incomes that are too small, rents that are too high and support which is too hard to come by for people who are sick, addicted or fleeing violence.

Dr. Tim Aubry of the Centre for Research on Community Services at the University of Ottawa called on the federal and provincial governments to hike welfare, disability, pension and EI benefits, create affordable housing and fund supports.

The program that helps Freeman is part of a strategy known as Housing First. The mental health association purchased 22 condos around the city to house clients at rents they can afford on a disability pension and offers them intense support.

"It's changed everything for me," Freeman said. "When I first came here, I didn't know my name.

"With help, I have flourished."


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