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Fast-track the centre, mayor told

Community reps tell Chiarelli to get out the chequebook

CHALLENGES AND COUNTER CHALLENGES. Mayor Bob Chiarelli challenged the queer community to jump through a series of hoops before city hall would consider funding for a community centre. Credit: Pat Croteau

The queer community came with a message to its annual meeting with Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli and several city councillors on Aug 25: Our organizations need more funding and we expect city hall to help develop a queer community centre. Fast.

But before they could deliver the message, Chiarelli did an end run, sending out his own challenge to the packed room and queer organizations. The mayor said that if the community forms a new organization to spearhead a centre, gets a name and board of directors and legal status, then city hall may donate $5,000 seed money to kick-start a consultant’s concept study for the facility.

“Groups often ask for a community centre,” Chiarelli said. “It’s difficult to get the mass of resources needed to get the end product started immediately.”

Though Chiarelli got polite applause for his personal support for a queer centre, his commitment barely reached beyond his past endorsement of the idea and the suggestion that one be built by 2020. And community leaders made it clear that they expect more from city hall, and soon.

Those leaders were taking to city hall the results of an emergency public meeting that drew nearly 50 community members to discuss strategic issues facing Ottawa queers, especially the community centre project first envisioned in 1995.

Keith Duncanson, former president of Pink Triangle Services, told Chiarelli of the community’s frustration with the slow pace of plans for the centre. And while Duncanson noted the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans community has a lot of work ahead to make the centre a reality, he also challenged the mayor to go much further in committing to a centre in the short term.

“It needs to be addressed,” said Duncanson. “Let us in now,” he challenged the mayor. “Give us access to space already available” in city-owned buildings in the downtown.

But Duncanson also told the mayor that local organizations need more money now. The gay community has provided needed health, social and recreational services on a volunteer basis for years, saving all levels of government money in the process, he said. But now, “We need more access to the tax base.”

Speaker after speaker spoke of the programs, many staffed by volunteers, which serve needs in the queer community or cooperate with other organizations such as the police and city health services.

Michelle Reis-Amores, executive director of Pink Triangle Services, spoke of the 21 years that organization has served the community mainly through volunteers. Some 12 programs and two services are now at PTS.

“Our community has shown an astronomical level of commitment and drive,” she said. “The city of Ottawa has to applaud us. But the income coming in to queer organizations in no way matches the professional services going out.”

PTS currently receives $86,000 a year from the city. Rent alone for PTS is $72,000.

“I see the need for greater support from the city,” said Reis-Amores, pointing to PTS’s lack of youth councillors, outreach workers and AIDS prevention workers.

“Without adequate city support, PTS risks losing its ability to serve,” said Reis-Amores. “Increase the funding.”

Darren Fisher, vice-chair of the Ottawa-Gatineau Pride Committee, told the mayor that an overhaul is needed to Ottawa’s system of funding festivals and then charging back for services.

Pride could support itself if city hall didn’t charge for policing, barricades, garbage pickup and lost parking meter income, he said.

Barry Deeprose, of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative, also urged the mayor “to increase funding for our organizations. There’s a direct payoff in our community.”

In Ottawa, gay men continue to contract HIV at the rate of approximately 100 yearly, he said. “That’s two guys a week in our community.

“We have to look upstream at what makes gay men vulnerable,” said Deeprose, citing stress from many sources including coming out, rejection, depression, loneliness and isolation. A plan to address crystal meth use is needed, he said. And starting a gay men’s health centre is vitally important.

Jay Koornstra of Bruce House told the mayor that the gay community’s charity dollars are already over-tapped. “We can only go back to the community so many times. We call, we beg. But sometimes it’s the same pockets we’re reaching. It cannot go on.”

In his summary comments, Chiarelli noted the speakers’ “eloquence not only in comments, but also requests.” Council will consider the requests while working on the budget, he said.