A young womanwith eyes like a scared deer is curled up in a corner by the RBC automated teller at Bank and Somerset. Up the street on Parliament Hill, a House Of Commons committee debates recent federal budget amendments that would direct $1.6 billion of new funding into building more affordable housing.
And from the headquarters of non-profit housing provider Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC) at Bank and Gilmour, understated but intense affordable housing advocate Catherine Boucher sees it all.
“I don’t think 15 years ago when you walked down Bank St. people were sleeping in doorways, but they are now,” says Boucher, who has been working with CCOC to build and promote non-profit housing for low-income people for almost three decades.
“Housing is the basic tool that people need to have a life. It’s very frustrating when you think we’ve got 10,500 households on the waiting list [for affordable housing in Ottawa] and no new housing.”
At 56, Boucher is funny, down-to-earth and obviously passionate about ensuring that people in Ottawa with little money don’t go without a home as a result.
She can walk you through years of Ottawa housing – and homelessness – history in simple story-like language. The story includes how CCOC was started by the members of the Centretown Citizens Community Association in the 1970s. It converted or built non-profit housing with rents accessible to low-income people, mostly in the ’80s and early ’90s when there was government support. This cash dried up, and the building all but stopped when the feds passed the responsibility for housing to the provinces and the Harris government in Ontario cut the programs.
Boucher points to the visible homelessness rates in the city and the waiting list for an affordable housing spot as evidence that something needs to be done to provide more people in the city with a home. And the free market alone has not proven it can do the job.
“If the private market could make money housing poor people, it would be doing it. They don’t do it, because there’s no money in it,” says Boucher, who argues that housing does not get built without government intervention for people who can only pay $325 a month in rent.
It’s a dynamic she’s had years to study up close. Boucher came to CCOC after working at the local shelter Interval House. Women and kids came there fleeing domestic violence, but then needed to access a home they could actually afford.
Since then, Boucher’s managed buildings, collected rents and has been the organization’s executive coordinator and main political advocate since 1988.
Attempting to explain how these years of work are rooted in her identity as a French-Canadian lesbian, she offers a couple of tentative thoughts.
She says that she, like her queer peers growing up in the late ’50s and ’60s, absorbed a lot of self-loathing and secrecy from a heterosexist society. Maybe the clustering of queer women from that generation in social service work had something to do with a desire to prove self-worth.
“Maybe it was like we were trying to say, ‘If we do good work, then we’re good.'” And perhaps, “If you’re a person who is discriminated against – which we were – part of you wants to right a wrong.”
Boucher says CCOC is ready and eager to build more affordable housing in Ottawa should the money in the federal budget pass all stages of debate and ultimately get committed.
After years of working successfully to help house people on the economic margins, she knows in her bones that, “Somebody’s gotta do something for somebody. Otherwise the world never changes.”