'We need to move out': Overflow shelter dispute to come before city committee

·7 min read
The City of Ottawa pays to house families in these apartments in Vanier when family shelters are overflowing. Many stay months, if not years, and some report living with bedbugs and other vermin — reports the owner denies. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
The City of Ottawa pays to house families in these apartments in Vanier when family shelters are overflowing. Many stay months, if not years, and some report living with bedbugs and other vermin — reports the owner denies. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

The words "Tabor Luxury Apartment" are displayed in silver lettering across the red-brick lowrise tucked deep within Vanier.

But that name doesn't tell the whole story of the building at the centre of a controversy coming to this week to city hall.

Since 2015, the City of Ottawa has paid owner Ahmed Syed motel rates to house homeless families there — an extension of sorts of the arrangement he has with the city at his other property, the nearby Ottawa Inn. It's meant to be used in emergencies, but many people CBC spoke with have lived there not just for days, but in some cases years.

Some report living with bedbugs, cockroaches and even rats.

On Tuesday, despite their fears of what might happen if they share their stories publicly, many families will tell Mayor Jim Watson and city councillors about life at Tabor during a massive meeting on housing and homelessness.

Some are only comfortable having their statements read by local advocates, who have also launched a petition on their behalf calling on the city to relocate them.

Ahmed Syed owns the Ottawa Inn and the Tabor apartment building. The City of Ottawa pays Syed to use both as an emergency overflow shelter for homeless families.
Ahmed Syed owns the Ottawa Inn and the Tabor apartment building. The City of Ottawa pays Syed to use both as an emergency overflow shelter for homeless families.

Syed will speak, too. He has shown CBC photos of renovated units with kitchens, and said he cannot understand what he characterizes as a campaign against his efforts to help large homeless families.

Tuesday's discussions over the Tabor apartments — and whether the city should continue its relationship with Syed — are expected to be emotional and difficult, not just because of the residents' testimony, but because it highlights the huge challenge the city has finding shelter for homeless families.

Shelter shortage

When emergency family shelters are overflowing — and they're always overflowing — the city pays motel and hotel owners to shelter them. On any given night, some 370 families are sleeping in motel rooms or university dorms, which costs the city millions each year, money critics say could be used to shelter families in a more sustainable way.

At Tabor, Syed is paid $89 a night by the city — a rate recently been reduced from $109 — to house 15 families, which comes to about $40,000 a month.

City staff say if the committee votes to no longer use the Tabor apartments for emergency accommodation, families will be moved to multiple motel and post-secondary dorm rooms, with no kitchens and at greater cost to taxpayers.

The debate was first meant to take place Feb. 18 at a community and protective services committee meeting, where local Coun. Mathieu Fleury had put the Tabor apartments issue on the agenda.

But a last minute six-to-five vote moved the item to this Tuesday. One family, particularly upset at the debate being postponed, wrote city councillors, describing their fear at speaking out.

"Those councillors who have voted to shut off our voices have not faced what we are facing," they wrote. "They are not living what we live every single day!"'

The owners of Tabor showed CBC this empty, renovated apartment to demonstrate that the units have kitchens and are larger than the motel rooms the city routinely uses for emergency accommodation.
The owners of Tabor showed CBC this empty, renovated apartment to demonstrate that the units have kitchens and are larger than the motel rooms the city routinely uses for emergency accommodation.

Families speak of cockroaches, rats

Organizations like Sisters in Sync and the African Canadian Association of Ottawa have been working with families to prepare statements for Tuesday's much larger joint meeting of the committees responsible for housing and for finances.

CBC News spoke with some families to hear their stories first-hand, but is not identifying them because they fear reprisals.

"... live cockroaches, blood stains on the bed sheets as a result of bed bug bites, rat feces in the kitchen ... " - Excerpt from an October 2020 letter to the city from the Vanier Community Services Centre

One single mother said she found herself in the shelter system a couple of years ago after leaving her husband.

Her children don't have bedbug bites like their neighbours do, but they hear rodents in walls and try to avoid one hallway for fear of large rats, she said.

"People here are not living in good conditions. They need to move people," the woman said. "We need to move out, not [stay] here, no."

Another single mother who sought asylum in Canada from the U.S. a few years ago couldn't find anything affordable to rent. She never expected to be in a family shelter for two years.

She tries not to complain, she said. The three or four rats in her part of the building have been dealt with, she said, but the owners and their pest management company can't seem to get cockroaches under control.

"The person who owns this building is in it for business. If the [city] wants to continue using this place it needs to be properly renovated."

Syed says he bought the building to provide extra space and kitchens for homeless families, after seeing them eating takeout and living separately in motel rooms.
Syed says he bought the building to provide extra space and kitchens for homeless families, after seeing them eating takeout and living separately in motel rooms.

October complaint led to inspections

The Vanier Community Service Centre is a non-profit that offers social, legal and counselling services to the area's residents.

According to documents released under freedom of information laws, employees with the Vanier Community Service Centre — a non-profit that offers social, legal and counselling services to the neighbourhood's residents — were alarmed by conditions they witnessed last fall on a rare visit inside Tabor.

"They were appalled to see live cockroaches, blood stains on the bed sheets as a result of bedbug bites, rat feces in the kitchen, mould, leaky water pipes and windows without screens," the centre's executive director, Michel Gervais, wrote in a Oct. 6, 2020, letter to the city's housing staff.

"They also saw makeshift wooden barriers, used to prevent the rats from escaping into the kitchen at night, gnawed right through," Gervais wrote. "Our staff witnessed neglect, severe disrepair, helplessness and fear."

Within an hour of being sent the letter, the city's general manager in charge of housing, Donna Gray, set a series of repeat inspections in motion.

"I'm being singled out. I don't know why." - Ahmed Syed, owner of Tabor

"I saw that letter, too," Syed told CBC News, noting his staff were not allowed to go into the units to clean before October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They did not find one bedbug, not one," he said of the inspections, although he said there were cockroaches "here and there." He produced a re-inspection report from December that showed no issues left to address.

Bylaw, public health and housing officials were satisfied by the follow-up inspections, city staff wrote in the report that goes before committee Tuesday, and pointed out Syed did perform extra renovations.

Families were also offered to be placed elsewhere, the report says, but "very few families accepted this relocation offer."

'Singled out', owner says

Syed introduced other shelter users to CBC, who said they've never had problems at either the Tabor building or Ottawa Inn, and any issues that did arise were dealt with quickly.

City case workers are quick to answer complaints raised by families, Syed said, and he resolves them in 24 hours. His staff clean the units weekly, he added.

Syed said he bought the Tabor after watching families sitting on his Ottawa Inn motel beds sharing takeout food. He said he wanted them to live together in a single unit with a kitchen and be able to cook proper meals.

Nor is he making big money, he said. At the new $89 nightly rate, Syed said he's left with little profit, as the rate includes internet, electricity, heat, linens and cleaning.

Units often sit empty if the city sends no families, he added.

Syed, whose apartment arrangement was also the subject of a 2019 audit, said the other 22 motels and post-secondary institutions that have overflow shelter agreements with the city aren't under the same scrutiny.

"I'm being singled out. I don't know why," he said. "People don't like that I'm supporting the community. They should be supporting me. What government is supposed to be doing, I'm doing it."