Ottawa Philanthropist Organizations: purchase hotels during COVID-19 pandemic to help the homeless
Open letter to Mayor & Council
Re: Urgent request to City of Ottawa Council to purchase hotels to support people experiencing homelessness and prevent the spread of COVID-19
The City of Ottawa declared homelessness a state of emergency in our community in January of this year. Almost 8,000 people stayed in shelter in 2018, and the lack of safe, affordable housing options has meant even more people are getting stuck without a safe place to call home. On top of this, we are now dealing with a highly contagious virus which we are trying to slow through physical distance and social isolation. And whether we realize this or not, these two emergencies are creating a perfect storm for Ottawa.
As people are being asked to stay home and physically distance, people experiencing homelessness and those staying in precarious housing situations, are not able to take these same prevention measures recommended by public health officials - measures implemented in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. This is particularly true for populations at greater risk of homelessness due to structural factors, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, women fleeing violence and young people. Ottawa’s overcrowded shelters simply do not have the physical space for people to physically distance.
People who experience homelessness are already at a greater risk of developing COVID-19 due to a higher prevalence of chronic diseases. Further, as non-essential services are closed, many people experiencing homelessness cannot access clean bathrooms, showering facilities, and cleaning supplies - all critical tools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The street-involved community extends beyond the Market, to various areas and neighbourhoods in urban Ottawa. While homelessness is often thought of as a ‘downtown’ problem, an outbreak in the street-involved community could impact any number of urban Ottawa neighbourhoods. Failing to attend to high-risk populations in our community creates a blind spot that will become stark and glaring in the event of an outbreak
Such a spread amongst people who are homeless would not only be difficult to contain, but also add pressure to our city’s hospitals, which are already at risk of being overwhelmed in the weeks and months to come. In Ottawa, a health threat anywhere is a threat to health everywhere. Reducing and ending homelessness has never been a more urgent public health priority for our community.
Emergency shelters and service providers, in partnership with the City, are making herculean efforts right now to provide safe options, starting with the opening of an isolation space for people on the street who do become sick in less than two weeks. This level of decisive and quick action is to be commended. Strict cleaning protocols have been implemented and agencies all over our community are trying, with dwindling Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and reduced staff teams in many cases, to keep shelters and essential social services running in some capacity.
Despite all of this, it is clear that shelters cannot replace the safety of housing. And safe, selfcontained housing units must be a part of the solution, not only to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, but also to invest in ending homelessness, not just resourcing an ongoing band-aid response.
Governments know this. Governments also recognize how susceptible people who are homeless are to this virus and the rate at which it will spread in this population. Federal, provincial, and municipal governments are all taking measures to create additional spaces for people who are homeless including the use of hotels as the fastest way to create physical distance. The Federal Government is already working with municipalities to get money out the door for people experiencing homelessness with maximum flexibility to achieve the most effective way to respond to this crisis.
We have an opportunity in this moment of crisis to do two strategic things at once by purchasing willing near-empty hotel buildings for people experiencing homelessness. Outright purchase of hotels will not only provide safe, self-contained space for people on the street right now to stay during this pandemic, the City will also own building assets that can later be converted to a range of permanent supportive and affordable housing options based on people’s needs - a key pillar of the City’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness and the City’s Official Plan.
Immediate purchase of hotels by the City, will reduce pressure on emergency shelters and other essential social services, and give people who are homeless the proper tools they need to protect themselves from coronavirus.
These last few weeks have taught us all how interdependent we actually are. People experiencing homelessness in Ottawa right now are not only part of our community, but also a group in need of better solutions than we’ve been offering to date.
With crisis comes opportunity. At the intersection of two crises, we have an opportunity to be strategic in how we move forward to address not just immediate issues, but the homelessness emergency that has been slowly building for members of our community over the past several decades. This moment calls for us to go beyond short-sighted, temporary responses, but to use every tool at our disposal to create meaningful, sustainable change for some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable citizens.
Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa (ATEHO)
Anglican Diocese of Ottawa Community Ministries Centre 454
Cornerstone Housing for Women
Ottawa Pastoral Counselling Centre
St. Luke’s Table
The Well Canadian Mental Health Association, Ottawa Branch
Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC)
City for All Women Initiative (CAWI)
Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa
Ottawa Inner City Health (OICH)
Ottawa Social Housing Network (OSHN)
Somerset West Community Health Centre
Shepherds of Good Hope
The Ottawa Mission