PRESS RELEASE: Horizon Ottawa calls on the City to keep Respite Centres open until they can provide affordable and healthy housing for their users


OTTAWA - Horizon Ottawa is launching a petition to ask the City to keep their Respite Centres open until every user of these centres are housed in affordable and healthy housing.

In an article published in the Ottawa Citizen on November 9th, the City of Ottawa's Community and Social Services GM, Donna Gray, confirms that the City has started to "wind down" the three remaining Respite Centres that were open during the pandemic. These centres offer a place to shower, find clothing, get taxi coupons, among many other services for people in need. They are considered to be one of the few success stories of the pandemic. They offer spaces for agencies serving underprivileged people to work together and address their needs. Above all, these centres offer large, no pressure spaces where people can find calmness and respite.

"These centres allow homeless people to flee the prying eyes of some of the less understanding community members. We have to keep in mind that, in many cases, being homeless means being obligated to occupy public spaces when there are no friends, family, agencies or services willing to accept you. Many homeless people are victims of almost daily harassment, often by police who treat them like parasites. Respite Centres offer welcoming spaces away from the harassment and the judgment. They offer dignity." says Mathieu Samson-Savage, a Horizon Ottawa member and PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa studying the experiences of homeless people in Ottawa.

The pandemic highlighted the suffering of many Ottawa residents. It revealed how vulnerable the City's homeless population was to disease and the difficulty agencies had to offer services that guaranteed their health and safety. COVID-19 spread quickly within shelters despite the best efforts of their staff to obey public health guidelines. The reality, however, is that these services are underfunded and rely on the donations of generous individuals even in the best of times. Before the pandemic, most struggled to find the means to provide the necessary services for their customers. After the pandemic started, those difficulties became more apparent.

Closing the Respite Centres not only means going back to this reality for the agencies and their customers, it also means doing so during an ongoing pandemic while the cold of winter is setting in. Above all, it means doing it in a context where deeply affordable housing is not an option and over 10,000 people are on the City's waitlist for subsidized housing. Samson-Savage explains: "By closing these centres, the City is saying that they understand that these residents need more services than what they were getting, but that they are not willing to provide them. They are asking people to fend for themselves in a context where it is almost impossible for them to fulfill their basic needs."

Horizon Ottawa is therefore asking people to join them as they request that the City keeps the centres open until the people using them have access to healthy housing that they can afford. While the centres are not a solution to the ongoing housing affordability crisis, they do offer better living conditions to those that are suffering from these systemic issues. As Samson-Savage explains it: "Homelessness is not a personal failure, it's a policy failure. It is a result of policies that cater to the wants of corporations, like real estate developers. The politicians that defend these policies fail to recognize that the most basic aspect of their job is to keep people safe. The problem has now become so widespread that we have grown accustomed to it. We need to do more and that means investing in deeply affordable housing and helping people find stability. We can’t close Respite Centres until we do that."

The City's 2022 budget was announced last week and includes $15 million for affordable housing. In comparison, the Ottawa Police is set to receive $346.5 million, an increase of $14 million over 2021. If the City is willing and able to increase the police budget by approximately the same amount as the total affordable housing budget, they can surely find the money to keep Respite Centres open until they solve the housing and homelessness emergency.

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