Turning a cold shoulder to the homeless - Metro US

Turning a cold shoulder to the homeless

The Alliance to End Homelessness this week issued its fifth annual report on the lot of the homeless in Ottawa. Here’s the executive summary: They’re still screwed, and it got worse last year.

The shelters are so crowded, with 7,045 people (1,179 of them children) jostling for beds, that workers report up to 100 people a night sleeping on the floors. Shelter use went up 13 per cent in 2008, and so did the average length of a stay, from 46 days to 51.

The chances of getting out of the streets and shelters and into affordable housing remain slim to zilch. The rental market in Ottawa has tightened considerably, with vacancies dropping from 2.3 per cent to 1.4 per cent, and rents rising 3.4 per cent.

The numbers, as crunched in the Alliance report, are unforgiving. A single male receives $592 from Ontario Works and related benefits. An average bachelor apartment costs $671. Add the cost of basic food, at $229.41, and he’s in the hole $308.41, without any frills like a telephone or transit, which might make getting a job possible. But unlike the provincial government issuing his pittance, this guy can’t run a deficit. Eviction beckons.

Ottawa did add 134 new units to its affordable housing stock last year. That’s an improvement from 2007’s total of 74, but well short of the city’s target of 500 units a year. At this rate, the Alliance estimates, it would take 72 years to clear off the current waiting list of 9,692 people.

Federal funding has been frozen for 10 years, and official attitudes sometimes sub-zero. Mayor Larry O’Brien once infamously compared panhandlers to pigeons, suggesting they’ll go away of you don’t feed them. He later allowed that the analogy was “probably regrettable.”

Also unimpressive was the National Capital Commission’s decision last fall, on the advice of the Ottawa police and in consultation with not a single citizen, to remove trees in Confederation Park where the homeless were known to take shelter, and, yes, drugs. The NCC’s problem with the homeless seemed to be that they weren’t homeless enough.

And dismounting my own high horse, I should note that homeless people used to sleep in the stairwell of my apartment building. When it was dangerously cold out, we turned a blind eye, and when the weather warmed up, we’d start kicking them out. They were often drunk, sometimes belligerent, and on more than one occasion used the stairway as a latrine.

So we started locking the exterior door. Problem solved. Our problem, anyway. It still gets cold out there.

– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; ottawaletters@metronews.ca.

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