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A crisis within a crisis: Occupation wreaking havoc on exhausted social service sector


Two years into the pandemic, we’re living through a crisis within a crisis.

Right now, Ottawa is on day 21 of an occupation that is preventing frontline agencies from providing essential services to our community’s most vulnerable people.   

United Way East Ontario and 37 social service partners are collaborating to support staff and clients who continue to experience intense levels of trauma, fear, and anxiety due to the ongoing occupation, while grinding through a global pandemic. 

Over the past few weeks, we have had illuminating conversations with our partners working in and around the downtown core. We heard: 

  • Vulnerable and marginalized people, and those working to support them, are being harassed by occupation members daily.  
  • People living with mobility issues in the city’s centre have become isolated.  
  • Access to food and social services has become extremely difficult due to a lack of transportation options downtown.  
  • Residents have been paralyzed by the fear of being confronted by occupiers once outside of their homes or shelters. 
  • As demand for services goes up due to this occupation, partners are finding themselves short-staffed and financially strained. 

“We are overwhelmed by the number of calls we’re getting for emergency food hampers. We’ve heard from seniors who have gone days without food. They are afraid to leave their homes.”

“Our three sites downtown have been severely impacted. We’ve had to close our drop-in and increase security at one of our other sites. We’ve paid for hotels for staff and provided additional supports to staff where needed.”

“The expectation of never-ending resiliency comes at a high cost, and we know the capacity of our sector can only take so much. The most vulnerable people in our Ottawa neighbourhoods are being acutely affected by this occupation. We’re tired, but we'll keep pushing forward because women and gender diverse people experiencing homelessness are relying on us.”

Our partners are used to managing individuals in crisis, but do not have the capacity to deal with violence being brought to their doorsteps. 

As with COVID-19, the effects of this occupation are not being experienced equitably: Indigenous people, Black and racialized communities, 2SLGBTQ+ communities, vulnerable women, seniors, and people with disabilities are at higher risk of targeted violence and mental health challenges. 

Our partners provide vital services including mental health supports, street outreach, food delivery for seniors, home care for people with disabilities, shelters for women fleeing violence, shelters for youth and more. These service providers were already dealing with heightened levels of demand, and pressures on capacity due to the pandemic.  

“Our partners are dedicated to being there for our city’s most vulnerable residents, no matter the circumstances. We are now coming together to speak, act and support one another during yet another crisis in our community.”

United Way has an important role to play in making sure the most vulnerable people across our region, and the service providers that support them, are safe and can continue their vital work.  

“The wellbeing of our community is not only at risk, but also rapidly deteriorating,” added Allen. “That’s why United Way is taking a multi-layered approach to providing reprieve to those affected partners and their clients in the short, medium and long-term.” 

As part of an immediate effort, United Way will be providing an initial $50,000 investment, which will help cover unplanned costs, including facility security, the cost of food hampers and delivery capacity, hotel rentals, as well as transportation for clients and staff. 

We will continue to amplify the voices of our partners, including those offering immediate mental health supports and other resource referrals, such as 211 and the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region. 

Meanwhile, as part of the collective response, 211 is using their capability and capacity to connect residents with access to food and delivery as well as other critical social services.  

United Way and our partners are involved in an open dialogue with City of Ottawa officials and actively participating in the Human Needs Taskforce. Our partners are bringing forward how the occupation continues to negatively impact the local social service sector and the people they serve. We are collaborating to address gaps and look at solutions for issues such as safety and security. 

United Way is supporting frontline agencies so they have the capacity to meet escalating needs, including staff respite and support, deploying resources to engage volunteers, and strengthening communications and collaboration capacities of affected organizations. 

As a collective, United Way and our partners are planning for long-term effects of the occupation by ensuring there are adequate mental health and wellness resources available to address traumatic experiences of hate and violence. In addition, we are working to strengthen the capacity of our sector to resume services, implement new safety measures, and support staff and volunteer resilience. 




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