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Finding a place to sleep when you're experiencing homelessness during an Ottawa winter can be difficult

An In-Depth Look at Homelessness in Canada’s Capital

What causes an Ottawa individual or family to experience homelessness? It’s often the result of a number of factors; poverty, lack of affordable housing, mental health issues, violence against young people, domestic abuse, eviction, trauma, and addiction are all leading causes. Many city-wide organizations and volunteers do what they can to help those experiencing homelessness, but some solutions are only temporary. Others, however, like many of Ottawa’s homeless shelters, are able to make a lasting impact when it comes to addressing homelessness in Ottawa.

Homelessness and its Presence in Ottawa

In the past year, the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa released its annual progress report on homelessness in the capital region. While the length of stay in a shelter has gone down for Ottawa individuals, the number of unique individuals accessing a shelter in the city rose in 2015. Significantly, the number of Ottawa families experiencing homelessness is on the rise, with a 10.8% increase since 2014 in the number of families accessing shelters.

In Ottawa, homelessness is a real issue that affects thousands of people—6,825 individuals used one of the capital city’s shelters in 2015. There are many efforts to combat homelessness in the city, and social housing along with Ottawa’s shelter systems help alleviate the burden of trying to find a place to sleep every night.

Despite these efforts, homelessness continues to be a reality for many people in Ottawa. While a bed for a night can provide temporary relief to an individual or family experiencing homelessness, long-term solutions are required to get people off the streets and into housing.

Ottawa’s Plans to Combat Homelessness

1999 marked the first year the City of Ottawa developed an action plan to combat homelessness, updated twice in 2002 and 2006. In 2009, the Homelessness Community Capacity Building (CCB) Steering Committee introduced Ottawa’s fourth action plan on homelessness. This plan was in place until 2014, and in 2013 the City of Ottawa announced a ten-year plan to end homelessness by 2023.

The City of Ottawa’s Action Plan features three definitions of homelessness to account for the variances in how somebody may experience homelessness:

  • Absolutely Homeless: individuals and/or families who “sleep in indoor or outdoor places not intended for human habitation. This includes the street, parks, abandoned buildings, cars, and underpasses.”
  • Lacking Permanent Housing: individuals and/or families who are “staying in temporary accommodation, not meant as permanent housing. This includes emergency shelters, time-limited transitional housing, treatment programs, withdrawal management facilities, and the homes of friends, family, or acquaintances.”
  • At Risk of Homelessness: individuals and/or families with housing that is currently “unaffordable, overcrowded, unsafe, and/or inappropriate. They may also require supports to maintain appropriate housing; for example, assistance with daily living, life skills training, budget coaching, and conflict resolution.”

They also define three degrees of homelessness:

  • One-time homelessness: generally caused by “unexpected, sudden events, including fires, natural disaster, eviction, or family breakdown. Frequently, individuals experiencing one-time homelessness can draw upon social or economic resources to find housing and stability.”
  • Episodic homelessness: “periods of housing stability with periods of housing instability.”
  • Chronic homelessness: individuals who have “spent more than 60 nights in a row in an emergency shelter and/or on the street are considered chronically homeless. Frequently, these people lack the physical or mental health capabilities, not to mention the skills or income, to access and maintain stable housing.”

A Demand for Affordable Housing

When it comes to the need for affordable housing in Ottawa, demand generally exceeds supply, as is the case with most cities. According to the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, 2015 saw the lowest number of new affordable housing units in a decade. 34 new affordable housing units were opened, and only 12 other subsidies were made available via the Ministry of Health and Long-Term care.

There is constant demand for more affordable housing, especially with an aging population. A growing number of older adults (people aged 55 and up) are experiencing homelessness. However, the largest population of people experiencing homelessness in Canada are single adult males—at 47.5% of individuals living without a home – men aged 25 to 55 make up nearly half of the homeless population.

Between 2013 and 2015, the city set an Investing in Affordable Housing Program target of 130 new units for approval. Even with these new units, Ottawa will not be able to meet the need for affordable housing, making the services and programs of shelters and community organizations in the city more essential than ever.

There is cause for optimism, however:

  • The average length of stay at an Ottawa emergency shelter was reduced by 6.4% in 2015, the first reduction since 2006, according to the Alliance to End Homelessness.
  • There are signs of success with targeted interventions.
  • The use of shelter beds has reduced by 3.4% in 2015.
  • The introduction of the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative in 2013 has provided a greater degree of flexibility to Service Managers to better address community needs.

Communities Coming Together

Loss of housing can happen to anyone, and it is often unexpected. Strength is found when communities come together to offer hope and support to those that it need, and the strength of the individual lies in seeking that support.

A meal offers hope to someone who needs it the most, and a bed gives temporary relief to a person experiencing hardship. For individuals and families experiencing homelessness, it is essential to have services that connect people with a safe place to sleep and their next meal.

But the solution to homelessness doesn’t end there: homelessness needs to be addressed on a systemic level, working with the root causes of conditions that lead to homelessness. By creating programs and services for those experiencing poverty, addiction, violence, and other contributing factors to homelessness in Canada, we can provide the extra support that is needed to help people get back on track.