As governments at all levels address housing costs and homelessness, a new term has emerged: housing-first. This concept suggests that a safe place to live is the best place to start when it comes to helping individuals who are suffering from trauma and or addiction.
“You see the difference when you give people a place to call their own,” says Deirdre Freiheit, president and CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope and the Shepherds of Good Hope Foundation. She also chairs the board of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa. “When residents, who have been in a shelter for years, have a home where they can lock the door, have privacy, a small kitchen to warm up food, and have a community, they are in a much better place to deal with their recovery,” she says.
Shepherds of Good Hope (SGH) operates a number of buildings around the city, including a 100-unit building in Kanata for those 55 and older, and two facilities on Merivale Road that also offer addiction treatment. This past year, they unveiled a new building on Montreal Road, designed by local firm CSV Architects, and announced plans for another building on Merivale, to be completed this spring, which will offer 57 people a permanent place to call home.
There’s also a site at 216 Murray St., next door to their shelter on King Edward Avenue, which is due to open in 2023 and will house 48 units, as well as a drop-in program with harm reduction and health services. Plans for the building are pending an appeal from a group of Lowertown citizens, who have expressed concerns about the location and safety both for shelter residents and others in the community. At press time, the results of the appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal had not been made public.
Freiheit is in consultation with the Lowertown community and hopes the project can move forward as the need for housing increases. She says the shelter would reduce the burden on police and paramedics; better for an individual to detox at a supportive shelter than in a jail cell or hospital emergency ward.
“We’re interested in giving people homes,” she says. “People who require shelter services at Shepherds have a lot of complexities and a lot of trauma. They need support around the clock.”
In Centretown, the John Howard Society of Ottawa is building 28 new bachelor units. Scheduled to welcome residents in late 2022, the building on Lisgar Street will have an activities area, a kitchen, a communal living room, as well as spaces to watch TV and use the computer. The organization is working with a coalition of Ottawa Indigenous-serving organizations such as the Ottawa Aboriginal Community Advisory Board, Minwaashin Lodge, and the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in order to connect with Indigenous women seeking shelter.
“The community and connection piece will be prominent in the residence,” says Eva Davis, a residential coordinator at the John Howard Society of Ottawa. Most residents will live on the upper floors but they can come down to the common area to update a resumé, read a book, or play cards. “There is a freedom to live and be supported at the same time.”
While these buildings add significantly to the city’s supply of housing, there is still a need to address increasing unaffordability and its effects, including food security. The issues can seem intractable. Still, for many, there is progress.
“What’s hopeful is that we have all levels of government working together now to prioritize housing because they see the need,” Freiheit says, pointing to the December announcement of policy and funding measures to address housing.
Housing affordability initiatives include an Income Tax Act amendment to require landlords to disclose rent they receive pre- and post-renovation — and to pay a surtax if increases are excessive. This move is meant to discourage “renovictions” — a term used by affordable housing advocates to protest evictions caused by renovations. Acceleration measures such as reductions in construction approval timelines and support for conversion of empty office and retail into market-based housing are designed to add to the country’s supply of housing.
“That’s what’s going to solve homelessness in our community,” Freiheit says, “when we can give people a place to call their own.”