Pressure from cities for Ottawa to provide homeless supports grows
EDMONTON -- Municipalities across the country are calling on Ottawa to pay for the refurbishment of empty motels and apartment complexes to house homeless Canadians.
“We urgently need more sustainable housing solutions for vulnerable Canadians—and we’re ready to work with the federal government to do what it takes to get them housed as fast we can,” reads a Sept. 10 letter by Bill Karsten, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
The FCM letter echoes a position Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson has repeatedly backed in recent weeks: that now is an opportune time to purchase multi-unit buildings at reduced prices, simultaneously creating more affordable and supportive living space while giving a boost to hospitality and tourism operators hard hit by the pandemic.
“It would be on the order of at least tens of millions of dollars for a city like Edmonton, potentially into the low hundreds depending on pricing and availability and how many units can be acquired in the short term,” Iveson replied when asked for an exact figure the city was demanding.
“You can easily extrapolate from that to a national scale. That is significant, but in the grand scheme of a multi-hundred-billion dollar response to this – and instead of spending money on shelters and money on short term accommodations and renting spaces – if we buy them, it would be a lot cheaper for the taxpayer over the medium term.”
He said the City of Edmonton has begun the process of looking at the real estate available, as conversations with the federal government continue.
“I’m quite optimistic based on what we’re hearing from Ottawa that the need is understood, the opportunity is seen as multiplly (sic) beneficial in terms of acquiring units, at kind of a once-in-a-lifetime discount, and that there’s an opportunity to achieve a step change in Canadian housing policy for the dignity of people who have been left out of the sort of Canadian social contract up to this point.
“And there’s no time like a pandemic to make sure that happens to prevent it from becoming a human tragedy in those vulnerable communities.”
However, organizers of Camp Pekiwewin don't see it as a solution that fits the mayor's 10-week timeline to end homelessness, which he called for two weeks ago.
"It is definitely a longer-term solution that I'm not sure is absolutely responsive," Shima Robinson told CTV News Edmonton.
"Community members who live in Pekiwewin camp are not going to be comforted by the idea of the federal government's just going to have to take care of it, or not."
Robinson believes there's local action that could lead to real change, like streamlining the registration process for social services. For exmaple, many at the camp don't have personal ID.
"It's not as simple as money. It's about expertise and it's about the time-laden process of housing people and connecting them to services."
Meanwhile, Iveson said he was directing the calls to the federal government because it has more capacity to make a financial commitment than the provinces, but would expect both levels of government to cooperate in embedding social services in the housing programs.
“Provinces are in a very, very tough position … And frankly, it took way too long to negotiate safe restart, so I think a matching expectation for provinces for the acquisition of the units would probably be a stretch at this point.”
The update comes after city council passed a motion “directing advocacy” in support of roughly 1,900 Edmontonians experiencing homelessness.
Councillors have debated the topic with growing urgency as colder weather approaches.
One week earlier, Iveson renewed calls for financial assistance from the provincial and federal governments to buy existing properties, like apartment complexes and hotels, to house those living outside.