Advertisement

Shelters struggling to accommodate rising number of newcomers

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe wants federal funding as city-funded homeless shelters deal with a surge of newcomers. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe wants federal funding as city-funded homeless shelters deal with a surge of newcomers. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa's homeless shelters are struggling to keep up with demand as the rise of newcomers puts pressure on the already overburdened system.

The Ottawa Mission is seeing many newcomers looking for shelter and they now account for nearly 40 per cent of its clients, according to its CEO

"We're easily at about 115 to 120 per cent [capacity] per night, and those people have to be fed three meals a day," said Peter Tilley.

"Don't forget, we're also turning away another 60 to 70 people per night who when they arrive, half of whom are newcomers,"

Each night, 30 to 40 people typically sleep on chairs in its lobby where they wait for a mat or one of 250 beds to open up.

"It hurts the team here," he said. "We don't want to be turning people away on nights like this, especially not newcomers who aren't accustomed to the Canadian winter."

We don't want to be turning people away on nights like this, especially not newcomers who aren't accustomed to the Canadian winter. - Peter Tilley, The Ottawa Mission

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe is urging the federal government to provide money to help reduce the stress on Ottawa's city-funded shelters and find newcomers a home.

The city partially funds The Ottawa Mission, the Salvation Army's Booth Centre, Cornerstone Housing for Women and Shepherds of Good Hope.

Rising number of newcomers using shelters

According to the latest averages from the city, there were 1,084 newcomers in the shelter system per night in 2023, slightly eclipsing the nightly average of non-newcomers.

City housing director Paul Lavigne shared three years of data on city-funded shelter spaces confirming an increase in the number of newcomers using the system. 

When shelter beds aren't available, many are forced to stay in physical distancing centres, overflow hotels, motels, post-secondary residences and city-funded family shelters.

According to Kale Brown, the city's manager of homeless programs and shelters, Ottawa's overflow emergency shelters are now almost exclusively occupied by newcomers. Most arrive with their families.

'It's really disheartening to see that'

"It's really upsetting to see people coming to Canada with hopes of prosperity and peace and healing and for them to end up here. It's really disheartening to see that," said Adrienne Arsenault, senior manager of program development and engagement at Shepherds of Good Hope.

She said nearly 20 per cent of those who sought shelter there by last summer and fall were newcomers. The year before that, they only accounted for about 5.5 per cent, she said.

"We are experiencing a toxic drug crisis, then this influx of people needing shelter services for the first time — it's just challenge upon challenge upon challenge," Arsenault said.

Adrienne Arsenault from Shepherd's of Good Hope says that there's unprecedented numbers of people needing shelter services in Ottawa.
Adrienne Arsenault from Shepherd's of Good Hope says that there's unprecedented numbers of people needing shelter services in Ottawa.

'It's really upsetting to see people coming to Canada with hopes of prosperity and peace and healing, and for them to end up here,' said the Shepherds of Good Hope's Adrienne Arsenault. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC)

She stressed that newcomers are not the cause of this crisis — they're just another group of people needing additional support.

"It's been really tough. Our staff felt like they were in a position of deciding who needs the bed the most, which is not a fun situation to be in. Nobody ever wants to turn anybody away, no matter what demographic they come from."

Local homeless population feeling the squeeze

Clayton Eng, a homeless man from Hawkesbury, Ont., has been staying at Shepherds of Good Hope's emergency shelter for three weeks.

"When I first came here they got me a bed, but the thing is I've got to book in every day to keep it and if I don't, it will be given to someone else," Eng said.

"Then I have to go somewhere else. That's the hard thing, but after a while that becomes routine here."

He said he too has noticed how busy the shelter can get, but he's started to work two days a week in hopes of getting out of the system.

Clayton Eng, client of Shepherds of Good Hope, says searching for beds each night is routine for him.
Clayton Eng, client of Shepherds of Good Hope, says searching for beds each night is routine for him.

Clayton Eng has been staying at Shepherds of Good Hope, but says he sometimes has to look for a bed elsewhere when the shelter becomes full. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC)

Newcomers need more support on arrival

Sutcliffe is calling on the federal government to fund housing for asylum seekers in Ottawa, noting that the majority of people in the shelter system are newcomers to Canada.

"I think the mayor has hit it right on the head," Tilley said.

"We need funding from the federal government to open a welcoming centre, to open a place when people show up at the airport and identify as a newcomer."

Ottawa Mission CEO Peter Tilley.
Ottawa Mission CEO Peter Tilley.

Peter Tilley, CEO of The Ottawa Mission, says the downtown shelter turns away as many as 70 people per night, half of them newcomers. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC)

The city provided Tilley's shelter with one extra support worker to help newcomers amid the current crisis. The mission also works with Matthew House Ottawa and other specialists to help newcomers get settled in Canada.

Newcomers often need specialized help when they arrive at shelters, such as navigating the refugee claimant process, but not all shelters are equipped with trained staff to help.

A welcome centre could be the solution.

"The system is so overwhelmed right now, people are all just working in shelters, just trying to keep people alive," said Kaite Burkholder Harris, executive director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.