Letters & Opinion

Opinion — Community safety means housing for all

Nick Grover

It’s no secret that the homelessness crisis is most visible in Sandy Hill and Lowertown, even more so since the pandemic. The response to it has ranged from lackluster to hostile.

The City of Ottawa’s affordable housing budget —for new non-market builds — has been increased from $16 million last year to $30 million this year. That is a clear step in the right direction to put a dent in the years-long waiting list for public housing, and was only realized thanks to the tireless advocacy of community groups like ACORN and Horizon Ottawa, and councillors like Ariel Troster. But does this funding actually match the severity of the city’s stated “housing emergency”?

Thirty million dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to what the city spends on policing, itself largely a response to poverty and homelessness, especially downtown. The police budget was just increased again, bringing total funding to $415 million — plus another $245 million for the first year’s lease on a new station in ByWard Market.

This might seem appropriate given the uptick in break-ins at various ByWard businesses, and how many merchants and residents alike report feeling unsafe there. But we’ve already been throwing vast sums of money at the police for decades, with little to show for it. They have been unable to prevent crime, only respond to it after it’s happened or, in too many cases, leave someone dead who was in a bad spot. We spend millions to move the unhoused out of view, put those struggling with addiction in prison, send armed officers to respond to a mental health crisis, and criminalize petty theft rather than fund stable, affordable, supportive housing. And so nothing changes except that the already desperate and vulnerable are left overpoliced and worse off.

It all feels like a bit of a scam. The City claims it can’t afford to build housing or fund better services because it must keep taxes and spending low. And yet it costs far more to police, shelter, and repeatedly hospitalize homeless folks, than it does to simply house them. Yet all this money spent managing the symptoms of poverty gives the City a new excuse to say “We can’t afford to do more.” It seems the real crime, as far as the Mayor and City Council are concerned, is anything that would lower property values. So we must make a choice, because if we truly want a safer city we must break this cycle.

Over in Finland, homelessness has been nearly eliminated. Anyone living rough receives a small apartment and counselling —without any preconditions. Four out of five people make their way back into a stable life.

Ottawa must go all-in on public housing co-ops and Housing First programs like Options Bytown, alongside robust social services, so no one is left behind, paid for by drawing from the massive police budget. When people speak of “defunding” or “detasking” the police, this is what they mean: redirecting money into social investments that tackle the root of crime and make the police less necessary to begin with.

When a person is priced out of housing, deprived of the resources and support they need, unable to find a job without a permanent address, and then dragged away by the cops so residents aren’t bothered by their presence — to me, that is not safety; that is callousness being done in our name.