The real issues with the Salvation Army proposal

After three days of public delegations, vocal and silent protests, an impassioned plea by the local councillor, and some self-serving performative hand-wringing by other councillors, Ottawa’s planning committed finally voted on the proposal to build a mega-shelter/community hub/whatever-we’re-technically-calling it on Montreal Road.

And planning committee got it wrong.

The vote was 6-3 in favour of the Salvation Army’s proposal, with councillors Leiper, Nussbaum and Brockington dissenting. Those three were right. This proposal should not have been approved. And here’s why: the committee was tasked with only considering this as a land-use issue. Delegates and councillors weren’t allowed to speak to the service delivery model or if there were other locations to consider instead.

And as a planning decision, the Salvation Army gave no justification for altering the zoning of this Traditional Main Street.

Maybe this sounds like I’m being obstinate or stubborn or nit-picky (which, granted, at times I certainly am), but that’s not my intention.

This issue is significantly larger than a land-use issue. As I see it, there are three main questions that need to be addressed:

1. What service-delivery model do we want? It seems that everyone in-the-know is switching away from this mega-shelter format. They’re looking at smaller, distributed service models. There’s a lot to commend in this alternative approach. It gets services to more places and, hopefully, more people. Smaller centers are more easily integrated into the existing community. It doesn’t place the entire burden (and, yes, there is a burden to be borne) on one community.

2. If we do want a mega-shelter, is this the right location? It seems we’ve chosen this location because the Salvation Army has chosen it…and they’ve chosen it, it seems, because it’s a very convenient move for them. But this issue can’t be resolved on convenience. We need to ensure that we get the right spot, and we probably have to be prepared to pony up some cash to pay for it. (Also, there’s the tangential issue that the Salvation Army’s consultants weren’t totally on-the-level in their report about the location of the people who would be using the center.)

3. Finally, should we really be farming this issue out to the Salvation Army. Look, they do a lot of good, but they’re not actually a city organization. The Montreal Road location is good for them, but this isn’t like building a new stripmall—we’re not going to open this one, and then open a few others nearby. We’ve let the Salvation Army steer the ship on this—deciding on where, how and who will receive these essential services. That’s not a way to run a city. And let’s not forget that this is a pretty controversial organization. There are questions about homophobia and their puritanical view towards harm-reduction programs. There’s also the fact that this center will only serve men. All this is, as they say, problematic.

This is a tough issue. The services the Salvation Army provides are necessary (even if we quibble about their preferred method of delivery), and the city has all but relinquished their responsibility to look after the vulnerable people who need these services.

It seems that there’s a valid debate to be had about how these services are delivered in the city and who delivers them. This is a discussion we should be having. We need to address issues of poverty, homelessness, and drug and alcohol addiction.

But we’re not having that discussion, and planning committee was explicitly told that they couldn’t even consider these issues. So, if they’re not going to be allowed to discuss the pertinent issues, or even consider the effects of the proposal and its impact on the surrounding community, then they should have done the right thing and declined to give a response, punting this to council.

I mean, it’s going to council, anyway. They’ll get the final say (well…assuming the Salvation Army ever gets the necessary funding), so they may as well have been charged with exploring the full issue.

Until that issue is resolved, no, we shouldn’t approve a shelter on Montreal Road.

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