For the past 38 years, Cornerstone Housing for Women has been the only provider of women’s-only housing in Ottawa. The organization provides emergency shelter and safe affordable permanent housing for women in need, whether they are seniors who can no longer afford to live alone, young women fleeing abuse at home, or new immigrants getting on their feet in a new country.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the City of Ottawa approached Cornerstone Housing to explore ways of expanding its capacity in order to accommodate the surge in demand for women and gender-diverse individuals experiencing homelessness through the winter of 2020-2021, and the need for physical distancing. The City arranged for accommodation at the University of Ottawa.
“Across our five programs, we support about 235 women each night of the year,” says Sarah Davis, Executive Director of Cornerstone Housing. “Given the restrictions of COVID-19, as well as the increased number of women that were looking at accessing services… when were given the opportunity to move our operations to the University of Ottawa campus, we jumped at the opportunity.”
Cornerstone began operating at the University of Ottawa in December 2020, and quickly saw its numbers more than double, from the 60 women that resided at its O’Connor Street location to 125 now housed at the university campus.
The Organization took this time to attend to much-needed work on the O’Connor street location. “We’ve been in that space for over 30 years. Things like electrical, boilers and furnaces really needed attention, and work can only be done when there’s no one accessing that space,” says Davis. This work will not be completed until around December of this year.
But on May 20, 2021, the University suddenly asked Cornerstone to vacate the university building a month earlier than expected, leaving more than 100 of Ottawa’s most vulnerable residents without shelter. The organization appealed to the community, pleading anyone with the ability to provide interim space for the shelter to reach out and help fill the gap.
Ottawans quickly answered the call. By June 17, Cornerstone announced that it would move temporarily to a community centre in Alta Vista, which is being set up with more than 100 beds. “We’re sleeping a little better at night here, knowing that we have somewhere to go before the end of the month,” says Davis. But neither the temporary Alta Vista location, nor the O’Connor location can meet the organization’s growing needs in the long-term. The Alta Vista location lacks onsite food service facilities and the O’Connor location, though equipped with the necessary amenities, can no longer accommodate the number of people seeking Cornerstone’s services. “It’s temporary. It doesn’t actually solve the problem that we have,” says Davis. “We can’t continue to move women around the city to address their needs. We need to have a permanent, stable solution.”
“It’s temporary. It doesn’t actually solve the problem that we have… We need to have a permanent, stable solution.”
Demand for Cornerstone’s services has dramatically increased since the start of the pandemic: “We’ve seen a 102% increase from December 2020 to March 2021,” says Davis. “Every individual who comes through the door, their story is very different. It could be that they’ve experienced a trauma, they’ve experienced a breakdown in a relationship, they’re struggling with addiction, they have a mental health issue that needs addressing… adding a global pandemic on top of that just exacerbates those symptoms and that reality.”
The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) researches and documents the economic and social situation of women in Canada through an intersectional feminist lens. In a series of fact sheets examining the impacts of COVID-19 on diverse women, CRIAW says that pre-existing systemic barriers to women place them in vulnerable situations during crises like the pandemic. For instance, racialized women, who are overrepresented in precarious and under-paid sectors without remote work options, have experienced significant job losses throughout the pandemic. Women are also most often primary caregivers in families. While they have taken on increased caregiving roles as frontline workers in health and home care, they have also been filling gaps in their own homes providing childcare and care for family members. Lockdowns have also led to increased cases of violence against women, leaving many women confined in unsafe housing without access support systems, phones or internet.
“With the pandemic, layered on top of loss jobs, is the inability to stay with a friend due to pandemic restrictions. You can’t to go to family and friends and stay with them, so you’re in a tough spot,” says Davis. “The services and access to support has also been extremely impacted.”
“We need to ensure that we have the services to meet the needs of a woman wherever she is in her journey.”
In addition to continuing its search for a permanent location, Cornerstone is working toward developing a more flexible approach to addressing homelessness in Ottawa. “The reality is we need a wraparound model for the women that we’re serving. And that’s exactly what we’re planning: to create a space that meets every woman where she is, rather than having a woman fit into the program.” Davis hopes that with additional support from the City and the community, Cornerstone will be able to develop spaces for women that respond to their specific needs, whether they are in need of emergency support, ongoing case management support, transitional housing, or long term permanent supportive housing. “We need to ensure that we have the services to meet the needs of a woman wherever she is in her journey.”
Despite the setbacks, Davis has not lost hope. She finds drive and inspiration in working the Cornerstone team. “It’s an honour to work with the with Cornerstone and I’m proud to be a part of that team. The community is very lucky to have such a supportive group serving the most vulnerable women.”
Davis says there are many things Ottawans can do to help Cornerstone fight homelessness and support women in need of shelter, including volunteering, making donations to the organization, and engaging in advocacy efforts. “Advocate with your local politicians, with your federal politicians, to ensure that we have the resources that we need to make sure that the women of Ottawa receive housing and the dignified space they deserve. Ask them to prioritize women’s homelessness here in Ottawa.”
Above all, Davis hopes that communities will welcome Cornerstone and its residents with warmth. “When we find a permanent home, [I hope] you’ll welcome us with open arms, allowing more women and us as an organization, to be part of your community.”
For more information, visit Cornerstone Housing’s website, Facebook page, or follow @HopeCornerstone on Twitter. If you have a lead on a permanent location for Cornerstone Housing, contact Amber Bramer, Resource Development and Communications Manager Cornerstone Housing for Women by phone at: 613-878-3393 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org