By Maureen McEwan
Throughout the pandemic, a Kitchissippi landmark has served as a refuge for the city’s vulnerable and unhoused populations.
Tom Brown Arena, the recreation centre situated at 141 Bayview Station Rd., has operated as a respite centre since November 2020. It’s a space where Ottawa residents can access washrooms, showers, food, clothing and different services. They can rest, and take shelter from the weather during the day.
Last January, as COVID-19 outbreaks hit shelters across the city, the respite centre was transformed into a temporary overnight facility to help increase capacity. The shelter ran at Tom Brown for 13 days and over 600 people stayed there overnight, the city confirmed in an interview with Kitchissippi Times last spring.
This January, as the city experienced a resurgence of COVID-19 cases with the Omicron variant, the respite centre was converted to operate as a temporary overnight space—known as a temporary overnight Physical Distancing Centre (PDC)—once again.
“Given the current situation, where community shelters are in outbreak status, and to help address various challenges, a decision was made to open Tom Brown Respite Centre as a temporary overnight PDC for men and women effective Tuesday, January 11,” stated a memo from Donna Gray, general manager, community and social services, to Ottawa city council Jan.12.
Tom Brown now offers up to 70 beds at night while continuing to provide respite services during the day.
Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi ward councillor, said he was glad that Tom Brown is there to offer overnight support again this winter, especially given the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant and resulting physical distancing needs.
“It is critical. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the shelter capacity in the city to be able to handle the distancing requirements that are the result of the pandemic,” said Leiper.
“It is good that they are using the facility in that way when they need it. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of debate over whether or not it should be—certainly that is not a debate that we’re having in the community. We need the capacity: Tom Brown is well-set-up for it. It has operated relatively successfully in that capacity in the past. So when the need arose, it [was] natural that Tom Brown would again be used on a temporary basis for shelter, in addition to its respite role.”
During the pandemic, the city has used a few community spaces for respite. Bernard Grandmaître Arena in Vanier (309 McArthur Ave.) opened its respite centre in November 2020. McNabb Recreation Centre in Centretown (180 Percy St.) was in operation from late April to early October 2020, eventually being replaced by Tom Brown that fall.
Converting community spaces for respite use is a newer idea, Leiper said, adding that spaces like Bernard-Grandmaître Arena and Tom Brown are “relatively innovative.”
“We haven’t had, up until this pandemic, this kind of facility. And it’s a priority for me, and something I speak constantly about with the city, to maintain these sorts of services when the pandemic is over.”
“The ability to offer somewhere in from the cold and in from the heat, with some really basic food, the opportunity to get a shower, [use] a washroom, is really important,” he added. “And the city is able to also provide a lot of other services in the course of providing that physical respite.”
Leiper said they’ve seen some very positive outcomes when respite, housing and health staff are able to work in the same area.
“The lessons that we’ve learned about the utility of offering respite centre services is not lost on any of us,” he said.
“We’ve learned how successful wrap-around services in a respite facility can be and I think we have to try to replicate that and build on it,” he added.
The councillor said he does worry that when the pandemic ends, the respite centres could be shut down, their services no longer offered, putting the pressure once again on day programs across the city.
In 2018, an estimated 1,400 individuals and families were homeless in Ottawa, according to The Homeless Hub, the online research library developed by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
In January 2020, Ottawa city council declared an affordable housing and homelessness emergency.
The Alliance to End Homelessness—a local coalition of organizations and individuals—estimates that currently 1,900 people, adults and children, sleep in shelters each night in Ottawa and that the “number of people sleeping outside has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic,” according to its website.
The coalition also estimates at least 2,500 households in the city are “at risk of eviction because they haven’t been able to pay their rent during the pandemic,” and there is no “no deeply affordable housing” available for them to move to.
Leiper said Tom Brown is being accessed by different vulnerable groups, including the “chronically homeless” who sleep outside, as well as the “inadequately housed”—those who may be living in precarious or overcrowded living conditions.
With Ottawa’s weather fluctuations, he added that it is imperative for these facilities to exist in the community.
“It is critical that we have—not just for the sake of providing people with comfort and dignity, but, in some cases, during extreme weather—medically-necessary spaces to cool down or to warm up,” Leiper said. “It’s of critical importance.”
Last month alone, the city saw a record-breaking snowfall, extreme temperature drops and numerous frostbite warnings just days after Tom Brown opened for overnight stays.
“With the arrival of winter weather, our community shelter system always sees an increase in demand. The City is working closely with Ottawa Public Health, Ottawa Inner City Health and community shelter partners, as has been the strategy throughout the pandemic, to protect the health and security of everyone and to ensure that anyone who wants a shelter space will have access to one,” said Chris Tuck, commander of the city’s Human Needs Command Centre, in a statement to Kitchissippi Times Jan. 19.
“Ensuring a safe space for those in need remains a priority for the City of Ottawa, and we will continue to add resources and supports in the coming days and weeks as needed,” the statement continued.
Post-pandemic, while Coun. Leiper wants respite centre services to continue, he believes Tom Brown Arena should return to its original purpose.
“I’ve been really clear that I want the space to revert back to what it was built for, which is a recreation space. There’s an arena there—there is a very high demand for recreation facilities that are within a walking distance of this very rapidly intensifying neighbourhood,” said Leiper.
“But, that said, we should be trying to find a way to replicate the services that are being provided in another space.”
Tom Brown is accepting a select number of items for donation. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
With files from Charlie Senack.