The City of Ottawa will need a compelling reason to turn down the Salvation Army’s proposed $50-million shelter and social service hub on Montreal Road.
It hasn’t heard one yet, I would venture, and likely won’t this week.
The most important thing to keep in mind as councillors gather in committee on Tuesday is this is not an existential debate — why a shelter, why this “mega” shelter? — much as opponents would like.
It is a planning and land-use exercise, which very much narrows the question to something else: Do the current rules allow a social service complex to be built in that location and does it broadly fit into existing plans for Montreal Road?
The answer from staff, fairly emphatically, is yes and yes.
“The department is not responsible for determining if the need for the facility is justified,” planners state in an 83-page document. “The proposed use is evaluated from a land use perspective and it is the property owner that decides if the use will occur.”
And this dovetails with the chief weakness in arguments advanced by SOS Vanier, the ward councillor and a roster of academics: They are trying to persuade us they know better how the Salvation Army should be running its affairs.
Look. The Salvation Army has been operating in Ottawa since 1885 and operating a shelter in a converted school on George Street since 1963. It has some expertise in housing the vulnerable — indeed, its survival depends on navigating government bureaucracies and drawing from the right funding pools.
This is the wrong model, we are over and again told? Maybe. But the Sally Ann is exploiting the only model realistically in play. It is all well and good to say “housing first” is the higher road, except this model has not matured to the point where, in 2017, it’s ready to accommodate the 7,000 individuals who use shelters every year in this city.
(Why? Well, perhaps it’s a collective failure, but despite a groundbreaking national study about the success of housing first, we haven’t drawn the three levels of government together to make it the standard, rather than niche, approach to the homeless.)
Not only is the Salvation Army exploiting the current system, but it’s putting major private money forward: $50 million to turn a derelict motel and forlorn parking lot into a Barry Hobin-designed building that will improve the street’s esthetic.
And what of the feared parade of addicts, yahoos, and petty criminals, becoming a bother to a community proudly emerging from its working-class roots?
Not the committee’s problem, staff say. “While planning can regulate land use and built form, it cannot regulate the behaviour of individuals and the behaviour of individuals is not a consideration in making a planning recommendation.”
Put yourself in the shoes of a suburban councillor, indeed in the shoes of anyone but Mathieu Fleury.
On the plus side, the Sally abandons its grubby location on George Street, thus achieving the goal of diluting shelters in the ByWard Market and opening up redevelopment on the old footprint; approval permits a $50 million infusion into Montreal Road; it represents improved service delivery fairly close to the client base; and, in terms of big picture, redrawing the entire homeless housing map (funding, philosophical approach) is beyond the scope of this committee anyway.
On the negative side, good people don’t want it there, we will hear over and over this week. This is not a winning argument. You can’t base the siting of an important social service in a city the size of Ottawa by primarily asking: “Hands up who wants a shelter?”
The staff report doesn’t offer critics much to cling to. It takes some of the most common fears — decreased property values, loss of business trade, magnet for the poor, a male-only policy for residents — and dismisses them outright.
These issues “are not reviewed as part of an Official Plan or Zoning By-law amendment.” Over and out.
There is something else to keep in mind, and it has to do with motivation. We are not talking about locating a nuclear waste dump or a Walmart warehouse or building a biker headquarters.
The Salvation Army is a faith-based organization that, long-term, is committing itself to care for the most marginalized people in the city. Indeed, faith groups (Shepherds of Good Hope, Ottawa Mission) are doing the heavy lifting in this sector. If the city, province or feds think this is a terrible idea, or have a better way, then let’s have the great reveal.
But no. This is the model we’ve chosen to live with. Is there really any other sensible approach than to approve the Salvation Army plan?
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.