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Advocates anticipating an increase demand on shelters this winter

The city of Ottawa is bracing for more demand on shelters as the colder months set in.

Shelters across the city are already at, or over, capacity, but the pressure is expected to increase this winter.

“I find it is quite urgent,” says Ottawa Councillor Marty Carr, who is a member of the city’s emergency shelter task force. The task force was created last year to help deal with the unprecedented demand on shelters across the capital.

“The amount of people who are sleeping rough, who are unhoused, or who are falling into homelessness is growing and all indicators are that these numbers are going to be increasing over the next couple years,” says Carr. “There is not an end in sight that we can see.”

Late last year, the city transformed the Heron Road Community Centre into a shelter, but it is already near capacity with 170 people staying there.

“Always in the colder months you see the demand increase because people who are choosing to sleep outside will start to come inside and that’s when it is really important for council and the emergency shelter task force to make sure we have a variety of options for people in the next couple months as it gets colder,” Carr says. “Council is going to have to make some quick decisions.”

The city has initiated some short-term solutions, including using bunk beds at community centre shelters.

“As part of the emergency shelter task force there was a decision made to increase capacity at all three of the community centres that we use by using bunk bedsm,” says Carr. “That way we didn’t have to go into more communities and interrupt more recreational programming.”

Carr says there are about 350 people staying a community centre shelter and the single adult system downtown shelters are at capacity as well.

Another possibility the city is looking into is acquiring a military-like tent, similar to the one outside of the Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus that helps with overflow.

But getting one up and running could take up to eight months.

Advocates say that other solutions are essential and could be potentially lifesaving.

Kaite Burkholder Harris is executive director of the Alliance to End Homelessness and says, “Unfortunately this is the worst year that we have data for, we know that shelters are at max capacity, people are sleeping on chairs every night, they are opening buildings and centres to just keep up with demand of people we don’t want to freeze to death at night.”

Burkholder Harris says there has been a huge increase in demand largely driver by asylum seekers looking for places to stay.

She says this winter is ‘the wild card.’

“Ultimately, city staff, shelter providers and service providers are trying to anticipate more demand and trying to make spaces for that, but we have a lot of pressures on the system in general,” she says. “I think knowing how cold the winter can get, particularly in Ottawa, there is a lot of worry that people are not going to be okay or have a safe place to stay so in advance of that there is a ton of prep work to make sure there are spaces.”

The city estimates nearly 300 people are sleeping outside every night. Ottawa’s brutal winter could be dangerous for those with no shelter.

“I know that the main pressure point is that we don’t want anyone to freeze to death tonight,” says Burkholder Harris.

Burkholder Harris wants to see the city focus more on affordable and rapid housing to ease pressures on shelters.

“I think what is important to remember is that we want long-term solutions, but even short-term solutions can be housing focused. The number one thing we should be focused on is helping people be rapidly rehoused with a rent subsidy. It is faster than getting more temporary structures in place and it is actually about people having permanent housing,” says Burkholder Harris.

The city doubled the amount of money allocated to affordable housing as part of the budget for 2024. 

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