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Homelessness for women and gender-diverse people in Ottawa is getting worse

Alison Telford, front-line worker at Cornerstone

“I’m sorry, we don’t have any beds at the moment.” It’s a phrase I say over and over throughout the day. I offer the caller other numbers at which to seek shelter, only to hear that those shelters are also full or they don’t feel safe going there. I had to turn away nearly 40 women from our shelter one recent week alone.

I feel shattered and deflated each time I turn someone away, as there are not many places for women and gender-diverse people to safely go. I am asked when a bed can be expected, and I regrettably tell them that I don’t expect one soon.

Our system is broken. I know this, not only because of the number of people I turn away in a day but because of how many residents are in our shelters for months on end. When, finally, a person does move out, the bed doesn’t sit vacant for more than an hour before it is filled. Homelessness is clearly far from being eradicated, and to be honest that’s probably unattainable. The goal needs to be to reduce it.

The first thing we need is more funding. I have worked at Cornerstone Housing for Women for 18 years and can attest to the decline and change in the homelessness sector. And, I can tell you that it is a direct result of funding cuts, not only in our sector, but in the medical, mental health and addiction systems. This funding needs to come from all levels of government.

The second thing we need is to create more partnerships within our health-care system to ensure patients have a place to go after leaving the hospital that is not just dumping them at an emergency shelter. Every day, I see how hospital systems are overwhelmed and underfunded, and how our residents who need urgent psychiatric care are being released without proper assessment and follow-up care plans. Without proper discharge plans, people end up in shelters, not just for the short term, but in the shelter system for more than six months. This is by far the largest demographic of residents in Cornerstone’s shelter right now.

The third solution we need is a plan to obtain more affordable housing. We need our newly elected city council members to develop an inclusionary zoning policy where new developments must allocate 20 to 30 per cent of their units to affordable housing. For those tenants who need it, a support worker must be available so that people keep their housing and we prevent the cycle of homelessness from continuing.

Since city council declared a housing and homelessness state of emergency in March 2020, things have only gotten worse. Now, just as the world opens back up, we are seeing the real effects of the pandemic set in. As inflation continues to rise, the cost of living is at an all-time high, private market rental rates are exorbitant and — let’s be real — how can a person on social assistance afford them when they are unattainable to a minimum-wage earner? Ottawa’s vacancy rate is 3.4 per cent, but for lower-income people, that number drops to 0.2 per cent. It’s not a surprise that the shelters are full.

We have to take bold, innovative steps if we want to make a dent in reducing homelessness in our city.

I see the despair and hopelessness set in month after month while women wait for housing. I am their witness. I am there, working in their temporary home, and can see how desperate they are for stability, safety and a place to call home. Housing is a basic human right.

I want everyone to have a place to call home in a community that provides dignity and support. World Homeless Day is Oct. 10. We may not be able to eradicate homelessness, but we can reduce it with these solutions. Let’s start electing a city council that is committed to more innovative housing solutions that address the housing and homelessness crisis.

Please click here to read the Op-Ed in the Ottawa Citizen.

Please click here to read the Op-Ed in the Kitchissippi Times.

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