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Ottawa's Housing Emergency and the Effects on Women Fleeing Violence

You may have seen increased visibility in the news lately about the housing issues we are facing here in Ottawa. At the end of January, a motion to declare a Housing Emergency in the City was tabled by Councillor Catherine McKenney and was passed unanimously by City Council. The passing of this motion gives the city the tools they need to be able to approach all levels of government to seek more resources for affordable housing in order to combat homelessness. Violence against women (VAW) shelters have a unique connection to the housing crisis, and it’s a connection that Interval House of Ottawa’s (IHO) new Executive Director, Keri Lewis, is passionate about changing. Read on as Keri discusses how shelters like IHO are impacted by the housing emergency and how people can help.

housing rally ottawa group photo
Photo of the housing rally that took place on January 29, 2020 at City Hall.

For those that might not know, what is the ‘housing emergency’ that Ottawa is currently facing?

The housing emergency is a complex situation. Essentially, what it boils down to is that there are very few rentals available in the City and those that are available are not affordable for low income and even middle-income renters.

There is subsidized housing available but the waitlist is so long that it can take individuals 10 or more years to make it to the top of the list. The situation is worsening because rental prices increase every year while minimum wage and most people’s incomes do not.

How does the housing emergency affect women that are fleeing violence?

When applying for subsidized housing, survivors of violence receive a special priority status which places them near the top of the list for subsidized housing; however, even with this priority status, wait times still range anywhere from three months to one year. This creates a bottleneck situation in the VAW shelters across the city. Survivors have nowhere to go once they have achieved safety and stability, which means they are remaining in shelters longer than necessary. The end result is that victims who are experiencing violence in their homes and are trying to access shelter are unable to do so because there is no space available.

10 years ago the average stay in a women’s shelter was eight to ten weeks. It is now three to six months.

How many women has Interval House of Ottawa had to turn away this year?

IHO has turned away 887 women so far this year. This does not include or represent the children or other dependents they have with them.

If the shelters are full, what are women's options while they wait for space to open up?

Unfortunately, the options are limited. They can choose to remain in an abusive relationship until a shelter space becomes available. This can take weeks or even months. They can call the City of Ottawa and, if they have children, they will be placed in a motel. However, there are waitlists to access this option as well. Women without dependents are sent to one of the two homeless shelters for women. While this gives them a bed to sleep in, it’s not an ideal option as there are no specific VAW services to support them through the trauma they have experienced.

How can people help?

The best way that people can help is by being aware of the situation and asking their municipal, provincial, and federal government representatives what they are doing to build more affordable housing units in our city and to address the lack of safe shelter for victims of violence.

Here are some ways you can take action against the housing crisis:

  • Talk to your elected officials and ask them what their plans are to include more affordable housing projects.

  • Encourage governments to provide portable housing benefits to allow survivors to afford market rental prices, thereby reducing wait times.

  • Support community groups who embark on projects to build affordable housing units for our community by donating and/or by being a community ally.

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