Update (Nov. 4): People and volunteers who are hoping to help are being asked not to show up to the tent city in person. Those that are living there have posted a letter, including a list of possible donations. If anyone does want to donate, they can drop them off at St. Luke's Table (760 Somerset St. W) with "Tent City" clearly labeled on it.

More than a dozen people left homeless after a rooming house fire are now living in a tent city in a wooded-area behind the OTrain’s Bayview Station.

“We’re a rich city and a rich country, and this shouldn’t be happening,” says Kitchissippi Ward Coun. Jeff Leiper.

The group moved into the woods about a month ago after spending the summer on the streets in the area outside the Somerset West Community Health Centre.  They were all residents of a rooming house on Lebreton Street North, until it was gutted by fire on April 11.

The building left about 30 people, already some of the city’s most vulnerable, scrambling for a new place to live.  Some did find housing, about 15 others left homeless.  They are now living together in the tents behind Bayview Station.

“It keeps us awake at night,” says Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, “it’s almost unconscionable that we’ve allowed ourselves to get to this place.”

McKenney and Leiper have been working behind the scenes for weeks, making sure the “tent city” is safe.  The group is equipped with firewood to stay warm and naloxone kits to stay safe in the case of overdose.  The councillors have also been working with city staff to “rapidly house” the fire victims, they have had some success but the city’s housing crisis has meant they’ve hit a wall.

“This is a result of an under investment in the various mechanisms we need in order to ensure that people who lose their housing quickly find it again,” says Leiper,

“We need to work with the city and our agency partners to open some doors, to open a safe place for these folks to live.”

The situation is now critical.  The weather is declining and there is real concern these people could die in Ottawa’s upcoming winter.

“It’s a little known reality, more of secret in our city… but there are people who freeze to death in the winter,” says Parkdale United Church’s Reverend Anthony Bailey. 

Bailey is part of a group of community leaders and housing advocates working with the Somerset West Community Health Centre, McKenney and Leiper to secure a site and funding to open one or more “warming centres” for these fire victims and others forced out onto the streets in the cold.

“The proposal is to perhaps have a space that would be funded, maybe two supervised persons present, have mats and cots, something open from eight o’clock at night until eight in the morning where people can stay warm,” adds Bailey.

The councillors say the warming centres should be a last resort, finding permanent housing remains a top priority.  If the warming centres are needed, McKenney and Leiper will bring a motion forward to council in the coming weeks, looking for an estimated $60,000 to run them for the winter months.