Crammed into dingy motel rooms, often for months on end, with restless children and only a mini-fridge for food, homeless families in Ottawa face trying conditions at the best of times.

Now, as some 200 families face the prospect of weeks or even months in lockdown amid rising fears of the COVID pandemic, their circumstances have gone from bad to worse in a heartbeat. No school. No playdates. And a growing fear that the coronavirus stalks the halls of their cramped quarters. 

“There’s already a housing crisis in Ottawa, right?” one mother of three in emergency housing at a Travelodge outlet, recently told The Ottawa Citizen. “If (the virus) gets into the building, it’s going to spread like wildfire.”

Often overlooked by media and the public alike, these families are now in the spotlight, as public health officials scramble to address the risks the novel coronavirus poses to some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable. 

The attention reveals that, increasingly, homelessness in Ottawa is not just a haggard old man panhandling for money, but it includes a young family, forced to couch-surf or sleep in emergency shelters. 

The “hidden homeless” of the nation’s capital have been driven out of their homes by anything from a disabling illness, to job loss, to a sudden rent increase, to unliveable housing conditions. 

You won’t see them asking for spare change or milling around shelters during the day, but they are out there, and their numbers have risen sharply in recent years.

Families in distress

Families are now the fastest-growing demographic in Ottawa’s homeless population, research shows: Shelter use by families increased by 33 per cent between 2014 and 2017, according to the City of Ottawa’s 2018 progress report on its 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan.

Not only are more families turning to shelters, but, the report said, their average length of stay rose 23 per cent during that time. 

“In 2017 we saw a significant increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness,” Coun. Catherine McKenney, council’s liaison for housing and homelessness said in an interview.

“I don’t believe we adjusted quickly enough to stem that tide.”

This increase coincided with the arrival of a wave of Syrian refugees coming to Canada.

“In 2017 we saw a significant increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness. I don’t believe we adjusted quickly enough to stem that tide.”

Somerset War Coun. Catherine McKenney

In 2018 the number of chronically homeless families continued to rise. In total, 266 families were homeless that year – an increase of more than 13 per cent in just one year, according to the city’s progress report. 

The closure of one of two dedicated family shelters in November 2018, put additional strain on the city’s already overloaded emergency shelters. As of 2020, Ottawa’s only operational family shelter is the Carling Family Shelter near Bayshore shopping centre which cannot meet the needs of the growing number of homeless families in the city. 

On Jan. 29, 2020, the city became the first in Canada to declare a housing and homelessness emergency and crisis. The word “official” was not included in the declaration because to “officially declare” a state of emergency — like during the 2019 spring floods or the COVID-19 pandemic — suggests the city would be able to use additional powers to deal with the crisis. The declaration is a step in the right direction, but will not result in changes overnight.

In Ottawa, more than 230 families are considered chronically homeless, according to a July 2019 paper by the Centre for Urban Research and Education, based at Carleton University.

Each night, more than 200 families are in a variety of outlets rented by the city, including 150 families in the Travelodge on Carling Avenue, according to The Ottawa Citizen.

Placing homeless families in motels was supposed to be a temporary solution, but for many, it can become their home for more than a year while they sit on the social housing waitlist. Even with priority, these families can wait up to two years before being housed.

Alexia Polillo, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, conducted research on homeless families in Canada as part of her PhD work at the University of Ottawa.

Less visible, little research

People don’t realize how prevalent family homelessness is because it’s less visible and there is little research on it in Canada, Polillo said.

“Family homelessness looks very different than single adult homelessness. It’s rare that we see families on the street,” Polillo explained.

“We know families have quite a bit of hidden homelessness,” she said. “They’re very resourceful with their children, living doubled up with friends and family … to avoid shelter entry.”

Despite this resourcefulness, more and more families are finding themselves in shelters. Part of the problem is that a lot of existing initiatives to end homelessness focus on a very specific subpopulation that does not typically include families, Polillo said.

“They tend to be chronically homeless individuals, or have severe mental health concerns, or addictions, and they’re generally targeted for Housing First programs,” she said.

Housing First programs aim to end homelessness by quickly housing people and then providing them with supports and services as needed so they are equipped to move forward with their lives.

Researchers and support workers say low-income families face unique challenges in finding and holding onto affordable housing that individuals don’t have to contend with. 

 “For individuals, there are opportunities to live in more communal living settings, like renting with other individuals. Those options are not there for families,” explained Katie Sanders, a support worker at Operation Come Home, an organization focused on preventing homeless youth from becoming homeless adults.

 “We see parents unable to afford a two-bedroom or three-bedroom apartment depending on the size of their family, because of how hard it is to find multi-bedroom units at affordable prices,” she said.

Affordable rent hard to find

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Ottawa increased by almost six per cent in 2018 and then by eight per cent in 2019, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Rental Market Reports found.

These increases are more than three times the amount allowed under Ontario’s 2019 rent increase guidelines, and disproportionately affect families who need multi-bedroom units, which are more expensive than bachelors and one-bedrooms.

To afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Ottawa you need to earn just over $26 per hour working full-time or work 75 hours at minimum wage, a 2019 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report revealed. 

Because rent is so high, families with children face a tough choice, said Jacqueline Kennelly, a professor of sociology at Carleton University with more 12 years of experience doing research with homeless youth.

“You’re either paying incredibly high rent, like $4,000 dollars a month, or squeezing everyone into a smaller space,” she explained.

Kennelly says it is not uncommon for a family to slip into homelessness because they can’t afford to pay their rent, and a lack of affordable family housing can also drive young people onto the streets: “What I’ve sometimes heard from young people I’ve worked with, is that they’ve left their families to alleviate the stress,” Kennelly said.

Ottawa’s social housing is seeing an all-time high of more than 12,500 households on its waitlist, said Shea Kiely, executive director of Housing Help, an agency specializing in housing assistance.

“We see parents unable to afford a two-bedroom or three-bedroom apartment depending on the size of their family, because of how hard it is to find multi-bedroom units at affordable prices.”

Katie Sanders, a support worker at Operation Come Home

“We help people apply for subsidized housing, but we are quite honest in telling them there’s an eight- to 12-year waitlist,” she said.

“People come here in crisis and it’s very hard. We feel terrible telling them this is the reality.”

Meanwhile, everyday expenses that many single individuals can take in stride – such as the cost of transportation, unforeseen medical expenses, and clothing – put low-income families, who already live close to the line, at a higher risk of missing their rent. 

Even people who work full-time struggle to make ends meet when they are in a minimum-wage job, said Amanda Noble, the author of Beyond Housing First, a 2015 report on family homelessness in Canada. 

“If you work full-time, full-year you should not have to live in poverty. You should be able to afford the necessities of life,” Noble said.

And those who lose their job or are forced out of the workplace by a medical condition, even for a short period of time, often wind up on the street, along with the family that depends on them, says Sanders.

One of the biggest barriers families face is finding affordable child care.

The shift work typically available to low-income parents makes it very difficult to find child care on weekends and evenings, Sanders explained.

“It’s pretty hard to find Monday-to-Friday school-hour jobs, so then you’re looking at daycares and babysitters and those increased costs to the parents,” she said.

In Ottawa, the average cost of child care for infants to pre-schoolers is more than $1,000 per month, according to a March 2020 report on child care from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Noble added that even though subsidized child care exists, there are long waitlists and the eligibility rules are narrow.

Low-income families also face a Catch-22 with subsidized child care, she noted:

“If you start earning above a certain level, you have to start paying for your child care, which is essentially (as much as) a month’s rent,” Noble said.

“And if you have multiple children then it’s even more expensive.”

Impact on children

Sanders has seen the impact homelessness has on school-aged children. Irregular sleep, disruptive conditions in shelters, and the strain of constantly being in survival mode often lead to youth missing school, falling behind, or dropping out, she said.

“Housing is such a significant component to your success,” she said. “You need housing to be able to focus on anything else.”

The homelessness crisis is especially acute for foreign-born families. The city’s progress report found that 36 per cent of families in shelters in 2017 were newcomers to Canada.

Sanders and Kiely say they have seen a notable increase in the number of immigrant and refugee families looking for housing and employment support in the last few years.

Lack of identification is a common problem for asylum seekers because without it, accessing most services, including social assistance, is impossible, they said.

“When we are working with those folks, a big component is their status in Canada,” said Sanders. “Identification is huge because it impacts their ability to work.”

If someone’s permanent residency card has expired the process to renew it is lengthy, complicated and getting the right documentation can be difficult, Sanders says.

Polillo’s 2019 PhD research was one of the first studies on pathways into homelessness among foreign-born and Canadian-born families. She found it was not uncommon for a family new to Canada to become homeless while they wait for their documentation and struggle to find employment.

Foreign-born families may also have a language barrier to contend with, which makes it harder to navigate confusing paperwork, access services, and find employment.

New Canadians

In her study, Polillo found two main subsets of foreign-born homeless families. 

One consisted of refugee families who had arrived in Canada within the last year. This group commonly entered shelters or lived doubled up with other families while waiting to hear about their refugee claims. 

The second group included immigrant families who had lived in Canada for about 10 years before experiencing housing destabilization, which landed them in a shelter.

Loss of income, unforeseen medical bills, building fires, bedbug infestations, evictions and unliveable housing conditions can all lead to homelessness.

“It’s so easy to experience destabilization in terms of your housing in these types of precarious situations,” Polillo said. 

To make matters worse, some landlords view large families and immigrants as undesirable tenants, and use rent hikes and other pressure tactics to evict them, exploiting loopholes in the provincial cap on rent to demand exorbitant amounts, or driving tenants out by stalling on repairs such as broken furnaces or leaking roofs.

“These are very intentional pressure tactics against the lower-income and racialized tenants to leave,” Kennelly said. 

More action needed

Chronic homelessness remains almost unchanged and has become significantly worse for families, according to a February 2020 report by the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, a coalition of local community service organizations.

The city’s 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan aims to end chronic homelessness by 2024, but at its mid-point in 2019, despite efforts and investments, it is clear the plan is not keeping pace with the number of people accessing shelters.

McKenney’s housing and homelessness emergency and crisis motion is more than just a declaration; it is a call to reform the city’s 10-Year Plan.

The Alliance to End Homelessness laid out several recommendations to help prevent family homelessness in its recent report. Providing services such as landlord-tenant mediation, housing search assistance, counselling, and temporary rental and utility allowances could all help keep families off the streets, the report said.

“It’s so easy to experience destabilization in terms of your housing in these types of precarious situations.” 

Alexia Polillo, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

When prevention fails, McKenney said she wants to see a system where, upon entering a shelter, families would be assigned a housing-assistance worker and would receive a substantive housing allowance so they can go on the housing market immediately.

The recently announced Canada – Ontario Housing Benefit is premised on providing households with $210 per month, but to house families and individuals coming out of shelters an allowance of at least $500 per month is needed, according to a January 2020 paper by the Centre for Urban Research and Education.

Polillo’s research suggests that once housed and stabilized, a family’s risk of future homelessness decreases. She found that for most subjects in her study, their relationships and connections to their family were vital to their survival and ability to keep fighting for their future.

 Unlike homeless individuals, parents have their children to think about.

“Their kids were their main reason to keep going, to push, to fight for a better life,” Polillo said.