One-quarter of Ottawa’s homeless are refugees and immigrants, survey suggests

Data gathered over a 24-hour period this past spring suggests refugees and recent immigrants to Canada represent a quarter of Ottawa’s homeless population.

From April 19 to 20, the city of Ottawa surveyed 1,400 individuals experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital, 334 of whom identified as newcomers to Canada.

Of those respondents, 169 identified as immigrants, 113 said they were refugee claimants and 52 identified as refugees, according to the city.

Shelley VanBuskirk, director of housing for the city of Ottawa, said she doesn’t think one specific event or issue is to blame for the number of newcomers without a permanent roof over their heads.

“I think there’s just increased immigration happening to all major urban centres across the country,” VanBuskirk said in a phone interview. “I don’t think Ottawa’s immune to the things that Montreal or Toronto experiences.”

The survey blitz — officially called a “point-in-time” count — marked the first time Ottawa had ever undertaken that type of sample study of its homeless population.

It was an order from the province, which mandated all Ontario municipalities to conduct these one-day surveys every two years, beginning in 2018.

Both Ottawa and the province have set goals to end chronic homelessness in six to seven years. The city of Ottawa says these surveys will help them better grasp “the scope and nature of homelessness in our community.”

Of the 334 respondents in April who identified in as newcomers to Canada, 39 per cent reported to have been in the national capital for less than one year. Twenty per cent, meanwhile, said they had lived in the city all their lives.

Van Buskirk said these numbers didn’t surprise her; rather, they affirmed pre-established information and hunches the city had, based on previous data gathered from the shelter system.

Still, she said, the fresh figures signal to the municipality that continued investment in settlement services for refugee and immigrant families is necessary.

Indigenous people, LGBTQ youth also over-represented in Ottawa’s homeless

Respondents who identified as Indigenous accounted for another quarter of Ottawa’s homeless population, according to a summary of the survey results the city released on Monday.

By comparison, Indigenous peoples represented 2.5 per cent of Ottawa’s general population in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Because the point-in-time data only forms a one-day snapshot, VanBuskirk said it’s possible both the number of homeless newcomers and Indigenous individuals in Ottawa could be higher.

The survey results also suggested LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the city’s homeless population.

“Twenty-one [per cent] of youth identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited or queer compared to an estimated 10% in the general population,” survey materials provided by the city noted.

VanBuskirk cited Toronto as one municipality that is trying to respond to similar findings by investing in transitional housing options and emergency beds specifically for this youth demographic. She said she’s supportive of Ottawa exploring such options as well.

“I think there’s definitely room to be looking at that,” she said.

Veterans of the Canadian military or RCMP represented five per cent of the homeless individuals surveyed, according to the results.

More than 200 service workers helped execute 24-hour survey

The city collected these figures on homelessness with help from 59 partner agencies. Together they sent out more than 200 service workers to gather that information over that one day in April.

In addition to connecting with homeless individuals at shelters, hospitals and service sites, surveyors visited community and resource centres in hopes of capturing more people who experience “hidden homelessness.”

VanBuskirk said the full report on the findings will be released later this fall.

While the data is a snapshot, VanBuskirk said it does set an “important baseline” that will help the city respond appropriately  to any changes or fluctuations in homelessness that are recorded down the road.

The next point-in-time count is expected to occur sometime in March or April of 2020.

VanBuskirk said the Progressive Conservative government, elected in June, hasn’t said anything to suggest that will change.

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