OTTAWA -- The Federal Government is being urged to help the City of Ottawa turn vacant hotels into homes for Ottawa’s homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even if we did 100 units right now that would alleviate pressure on the shelters,” said Kaite Burkholder-Harris, Executive Director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.

The Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, the city’s largest shelters, Ottawa Inner City Health and municipal Councillors are conducting the #Hotels2Homes social media campaign on Wednesday. It calls on the Federal Government to provide funding to help the city purchase hotels to create safe spaces during the pandemic, and provide a permanent solution for affordable housing in Ottawa.

“It’s a campaign to really raise support for capital funding from the Federal Government to be able to purchase hotels right now, rather then only lease, in order for people who are homeless to have a safe place during COVID, but also in the long-term be able to develop some assets during this time of COVID,” Burkholder-Harris told on Wednesday morning.

“People can’t really physically distance in a shelter, there’s just not enough space. The shelters are maxed out. This health crisis has really, really highlighted just how vulnerable folks are.”

In a statement, the organizations warn that if the Federal Government doesn’t provide funding to purchase hotels, “we could experience a COVID-19 outbreak within the shelter system that has the potential to overwhelm our local health care system.”

There are approximately 1,000 shelter beds available each night in Ottawa, Over 8,000 people a year spend at least one night in a shelter.  

The Alliance to End Homelessness, The Shepherds of Good Hope, Cornerstone Housing for Women, the Ottawa Mission, the Salvation Army and Ottawa Inner City Health say the hotels could also be turned into permanent affordable housing once the pandemic ends.

Speaking with reporters last week, Ottawa’s general manager of Community and Social Services Donna Gray said the City of Ottawa was considering buying a hotel to give vulnerable residents of the city a safe place to stay during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for shelters, while trying to encourage physical distancing.

“I give a lot of credit to shelter staff, to frontline workers and to the city in really doing the best that they can in a really impossible situation,” said Burkholder-Harris.

“They’ve changed their cleaning protocols, they’ve changed their distancing protocols, but the reality is there’s simple not enough physical space in a shelter where you have potentially four to six people in a smaller room on cots.”

Burkholder-Harris adds people are also afraid to go into a shelter due to the risk of COVID-19.

The Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa says if Ottawa could start with 500 units at first, that would reduce pressure on the shelters.

“Even if we did 100 units right now that would alleviate pressure on the shelters,” said Burkholder-Harris

In January, the City of Ottawa declared a homelessness emergency.  Ottawa is spending $109 million on housing and homelessness this year, including funding for social housing, housing subsidies and youth initiatives.

The City of Ottawa’s 10-year Housing and Homeless Plan unveiled in late January suggested the city should create between 5,700 and 8,500 affordable housing units and financial subsidies. It included plans to build or acquire 710 affordable housing units in the next six years.

If you see the #Hotels2Homes hashtag on social media today, Burkholder-Harris wants you to consider the importance of creating spaces in shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re all in this together and ultimately if there’s an outbreak in Ottawa’s shelters, that’s going to overwhelm our health care system, that’s going to overwhelm our services. We need to be proactive and get ahead of any kind risk like that in order for all of us to be safe and healthy during this time.”