She’d been so happy when she told us she’d found an apartment, but now she was back at the reception desk at Cornerstone Housing for Women with tears in her eyes. She wouldn’t be moving after all. For the third time in just a few months, she lost an apartment when the rental company did a background check. For the third time her bad credit and criminal record knocked her back just as she started to move forward.
I’m a program manager at Cornerstone Housing for Women’s emergency shelter, where every day we support 107 women who are trying to find a home. According to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal housing is a human right, but experiences like the one above—which is certainly not an isolated incident—show us over and over that rights are not necessarily realities.
Most women who stay with us ultimately find a place to live through Ottawa Community Housing or at one of Cornerstone’s long-term residences, where the difficulties they’ve faced in the past don’t prevent them from finding a better future. But the pressure is mounting. In the past year, we’ve seen a 102-per-cent increase in the number of women experiencing homelessness who come to our shelter. I’ve been working in the shelter sector for eight years and I’ve seen COVID-19 change the population of women we support at the same time as rising prices and low supply have exacerbated lack of availability and increased barriers to housing.
The city approved a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in March of this year, but for now your likelihood of finding housing is determined by how much money you have and how good your credit is. The women we support have been shuffled around foster care for years, or struggle with alcoholism, or they’re fleeing violence or they’ve been wrongfully evicted. When, as they struggled to pay for food and rent, were they supposed to build good credit? The bleak reality is, the housing market is not available to the most vulnerable members of our community.
This can’t go on. Short term, even longer term, as we wait for more community housing to be built we need the city and its citizens to find ways to encourage landlords to rent to people who would otherwise be shut out of the market. Landlords willing to help provide affordable housing should be able to get insurance that would protect them from loss and encourage them to accept as tenants women who are trying to escape the cycle of homelessness.
The 10-year plan the city announced in March is based on the principle of “housing first” which says the first step toward helping vulnerable people to more secure, stable lives is to get them secure, stable housing. When people have a place of their own to call home, they are much more likely to connect with support and succeed in dealing with the issues that contributed to them being homeless in the first place. National Housing Day just passed on November 22nd, but we need your continued support. Please ask your city councillor to stop “renovictions” and other wrongful evictions; urge policies that will encourage private-market landlords to create affordable rentals; ask Mayor Jim Watson and Premier Doug Ford to bring more non-profit rental housing in Ottawa. Let’s make Ottawa home, really home, for all its residents.
Amanda Johnson is a Program Manager at Cornerstone Housing for Women’s emergency shelter.