Saturday, April 08, 2006

Homelessness in Ottawa Getting Worse

Despite good intentions, the problem of homelessness in Ottawa continues to grow, according to a report being released today by the Alliance to End Homelessness.

The group's second annual report found a two-per-cent increase in the number of people who stayed in emergency shelters in 2005 compared with the year before, with the largest growth -- a five-per-cent increase -- in the number of families seeking shelter space.

"The situation is not getting any better, and there are increases in all groups, men, women, youth and families," Tim Aubry, an alliance member and co-director of the University of Ottawa's community services research centre, said yesterday. "It remains a serious social problem in Ottawa, and, unfortunately, we haven't seen movement in reducing the number of people who experience homelessness."

On the plus side, the report found services to help people find new housing after they lose what they had are improving and people spent less time in shelters in 2005 before finding a place to live.

Using statistics collected at Ottawa's shelters, the group says 8,853 people, or about one per cent of the city's population, spent at least one night in shelters last year, including 668 families with 1,000 children.

Mr. Aubry said a lack of affordable housing was identified as the chief problem facing people in the lowest income brackets, and although the stock of affordable rental unit grew last year, the gains were minimal.

"There's quite a gap between what people can afford and what's available," he said. "People at the low end of the income scale, on fixed incomes, minimum wage or a little better than that, can't afford the cost of rentals. It leads to a precarious situation for these people, and it's especially difficult for families."

Ottawa Councillor Maria McRae, chairwoman of the Ottawa Housing Corp., the city's social housing group with 50,000 tenants, said she thinks homelessness and a lack of affordable housing are linked, but she's not sure how closely.

All the social housing in the world wouldn't get some homeless people off the street, she said. So instead of increasing the number of social housing units, she would like to see programs designed to help temporarily homelessness people get back on their feet.

Ms. McRae said she thinks the city's rent subsidy housing programs should be expanded. In these programs the municipality pays some of the rent for low income people living in privately owned properties.

With Ottawa's vacancy rate hitting about three per cent of private rental units, she said the city should approach landlords looking for 15- and 20-year deals in which the municipality would be pay some of the rent while low income earners pay the balance.

"It would give people a chance to get back on their feet, and that way they wouldn't end up costing the city in other ways," said Ms. McRae. "Investing a little now in these people will end up saving the city money in the future."


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