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Fostering collaboration to end homelessness


In 2013, Ottawa City Council passed a 10-year housing and homelessness plan, the first of its kind for the City, where it committed to ending homelessness in Ottawa by 2023. Last month, the City’s Special Liaison on Housing and Homelessness, Councillor Mark Taylor, asked community partners for ideas on how Ottawa could break down community silos and accelerate our progress toward this important goal.

Here, we chat with Rhonda Bradley, Senior Advisor, Public Affairs, about how United Way Ottawa responded to Councillor Taylor’s request.

The City has said it will end homelessness in Ottawa by 2023: Is the goal too ambitious?

It’s certainly an ambitious goal, but it’s an important one that we are well on our way to achieving.

In recent years, the City of Ottawa has shown leadership on the issue of homelessness, and put many measures in place that generate positive impact for some of the city’s most vulnerable.

If we continue to work together, there is no doubt Ottawa can end homelessness by 2023.

So what’s working well?

The measure that has made the greatest difference so far is the City’s full adoption of “Housing First” methodology – it is an evidence-based approach that rests on providing people with a real home as the very first step in recovering from homelessness, but also  extending the services and supports an individual needs to permanently maintain a life beyond our emergency shelters.

In a similar vein, we are also very encouraged to see the City’s participation in the development of “A Way Home Community Planning Framework” which puts special emphasis on the needs of youth. Youth homelessness “is different from adult homelessness, both in the way that it starts, and the solutions to end it”.

Adopting a “Housing First” approach has been absolutely critical to any municipality that aims to end homelessness.

Youth who experience homelessness require interventions tailored to their age and level of development. The City’s involvement in this community planning process signals a clear understanding that one of the best ways to end homelessness in Ottawa is to prevent our young people from ending up on the streets in the first place.

We also think it’s important to acknowledge that the City has set an important example by breaking down its own internal silos. The 10 year plan the City is currently following is a consolidation of three separate pre-existing plans that all held some responsibilities for housing and homelessness but the pieces didn’t always fit together. The City also created an Interdepartmental Committee which is yet another way they are demonstrating that solving the issues of Housing and Homelessness cannot be accomplished through any one perspective or approach. It gives the City tremendous credibility in encouraging the many community stakeholders, across multiple sectors, who must work together if we hope to achieve lasting results.

Last but not least, I would say the City is making concrete promises and keeping them. From Mayor Watson’s campaign commitments to put more funds in the budget for housing and homelessness issues, to his appointment of a member of Council as Senior Liaison, to lending our City’s voice to those of other municipal leaders at the Provincial and Federal level – these measures demonstrate a deep understanding for the kind of leadership, investment and collaboration which Ottawa will require in order to create lasting solutions.

What else should Ottawa be doing to end homelessness?

We are off to a good start. We now have a strong foundation in place so going forward, we can apply greater creativity and innovation.  Here are some of the ideas United Way Ottawa views as most promising.

  1. We need the City to encourage and support new ways of financing affordable housing.

Despite significant investments in affordable and supportive housing by the City, Province and new commitments from the Federal government, it is unlikely that our existing practice of using government money and philanthropic funding will ever be enough to build up the quantity of affordable and supportive housing Ottawa will require.

As United Way has noted previously, social finance tools like community bonds are proving themselves to be effective for financing social infrastructure and community assets like affordable housing units and community meeting spaces at a more accelerated pace. In other communities experimenting with these financial instruments, they not only deliver critical financing but also generate a greater sense of community ownership.

United Way would welcome the opportunity to work with a variety of stakeholders, including the City, to leverage different types of investment to increase affordable housing and supports in Ottawa.

  1. Ottawa must continue to pursue a cohesive, integrated system. This includes using data to assess trends, create more targeted interventions, and to measure the effectiveness of those interventions.

As noted, we’ve made a great start toward better coordination as a community. That said, there are many reasons why people fall into homelessness and for certain groups, the patterns are more predictable. Our interventions can be more targeted, because as we have learned through supporting those experiencing chronic homelessness or working with homeless youth, the one-sized approach does not fit all.
United Way would like to see the City work with community and other funders, to develop a series of integrated strategies that are specifically focused on those populations who demonstrate the greatest vulnerability to homelessness: seniors (and in particular senior women), rural youth, immigrants and refugees, as well as people with disabilities, those experiencing mental health challenges, and people exiting incarceration, among others.
Again, following the City’s approach to ending chronic homelessness or youth homelessness, these would be strategies that rest on best-practice research, and include numerous service providers with different areas of expertise working together toward a common goal for each of these populations. Additionally, we could look at population projections and remain ahead of issues – the rising seniors’ population in Ottawa comes to mind here.

  1. We should link our social strategies with our economic development planning.

Currently, the City applies its energy to preventing homelessness in two key ways: supporting a community-wide youth homelessness strategy and through housing loss prevention efforts, including the Housing Loss Prevention Network and Supports to Social Housing program.

While these are critical, we also know that low levels of income and employment are two of the greatest predictors of homelessness. For example, people with disabilities, women, and immigrants disproportionately experience exclusion from the labour market. These groups are also disproportionately represented in our housing and homelessness statistics. So looking at the issues of housing and homelessness exclusive of economic development planning and labour market participation is overlooking a big piece of the challenge.

While the City of Ottawa certainly plays a role in developing our budding Social Enterprise sector and works with United Way and other partners to build job skills and engage local employers, we would all benefit if there were greater cooperation between our social and our economic development planning.

  1. Greater allotment of Portable Rent Supplements.

As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities points out: “affordability problems account for 93% of core housing need.”   If our city was able to bring in new forms of investment to increase our supply of affordable housing, we could leverage tools such as portable rent subsidies which are attached to the household (the people), rather than the housing unit (the place) – this would give people the freedom to choose a living situation that works for them, without having to worry as much about not being able to afford it.

Benefits administered in this way can be distributed more quickly to people who need housing help, for as long or short a period as needed.

  1. Let’s encourage smart, sustainable revitalization and growth of affordable housing.

In Ottawa, much of our existing social housing is clustered in certain areas across the city. While people may move in and out of low-income neighbourhoods, the neighbourhoods themselves often remain stigmatized.

Other municipalities are taking a different look at how we design neighbourhoods to accommodate low-income households. Initiatives like these provide better accommodations for low-income residents and connect them to the greater community. Similarly, better application of sustainable building practices and upgrades can also mean that lower income households would pay less to energy costs.

By encouraging collaboration our local government, along with developers, planners, community partners, investors, philanthropic funders, business leaders and citizens, we can find innovative ways to increase affordable housing across our community.

So what’s next?

At United Way Ottawa, we believe our city has all the elements necessary to make better, quicker progress in addressing the issues of affordable housing and homelessness. We sincerely appreciate the opportunity Councillor Taylor has provided to submit ideas to how we can continue to make more real and lasting progress. If we continue to work, innovate and problem-solve together, we will see a day when everyone in Ottawa has a place to call home.

What is United Way Ottawa doing about homelessness?

We know that each year, more than 1,400 young people in Ottawa have no place to call home.

So if we could stop homelessness from taking root in the first place – what would we do? We can intervene before homelessness becomes a way of life.

This is why United Way Ottawa invests in programs that focus first on getting youth into safe housing, and then providing them access to supports to deal with things like abuse, addiction, and mental health issues that often led them to the streets in the first place.

A photo of Rhonda Bradley

Rhonda Bradley
Senior Advisor, Public Affairs, United Way Ottawa




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