On June 28, 2019, as part of Welcoming Ottawa Week, Catherine McKenney, City Councillor for Somerset Ward hosted a panel discussion on the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ refugees in accessing permanent and affordable housing in the city.

The panel moderated by Councillor McKenney, included Lisa Hébert from Capital Rainbow Refuge, George Hartsgrove from Ottawa Senior Pride Network and a LGBTQ refugee applicant.

Councillor McKenney who is the City Council Liaison for Housing and Homelessness, began the discussion by highlighting that the city has a shortage of affordable housing and that far too many people spend more than half their income on rent.

“We must listen to the people behind us who are demanding change and we have a responsibility to act on this issue,” said Councillor McKenney.

More than 70 countries worldwide criminalize homosexuality. Lisa Hébert whose organization has helped to settle about 70 LGBTQ refugees since 2010 spoke about some of the challenges these newcomers face.

“They often are fleeing violence from police, gangs and their family members, which can result in serious trust issues,” explained Ms. Hébert. “Some refugees have told me they are always looking over their shoulder and don’t feel safe. They have layers of vulnerability and many only come out after their refugee hearing.”

Often LGBTQ refugees who are sponsored by a group live in shelters or Air BNBs. Some shelters accommodate six people in a room which can be difficult for a LGBTQ refugee. The waitlist for social housing can take from eight to 12 years and the average one-bedroom apartment costs $1,200 a month, which is hardly affordable for a newcomer.

The LGBTQ refugee applicant described her challenges related to housing. She lives in a basement apartment in a rooming house. This place is shared with a prostitute, drug dealer and man suffering from bipolar disorder. The prostitute’s friend yells out racists comments, so she fearfully barricades herself in her room when he is around. There is a strong smell from the drug dealer’s marijuana. The man with bipolar disorder often yells at her. When her room was ransacked one day and her clothing and shoes were stolen, her landlord said it wasn’t his problem.

“These types of situations can extend the post-traumatic stress many LGBTQ refugees experience,” adds Ms. Hébert. “Having a safe home is a big part of healing.”

George Hartsgrove, who volunteers helping to find housing for LGBTQ newcomers, spoke about the financial challenges faced by many refugees living on social assistance as low as $700 a month.

Often the Government Assisted Refugees don’t have the same level of assistance as sponsored refugees who receive social, financial and moral support from their group. For instance, Capital Rainbow Refugee provides free accommodation at a group member’s home to their newcomers for up to six months.

LGBTQ refugees frequently cannot turn to their diaspora living in Canada for support. George Hartsgrove told a story about how a group of LGBTQ refugees in a Toronto neighbourhood were attacked by members of their diaspora.

The panelists answered several questions from the attendees. While the panelists agreed that the challenges are abundant, there were some signs of hope.

Councillor McKenney recently visited BC with her colleague Councillor Mathieu Fleury and spoke about BC Housing progressive programs for LGBTQ refugees. Mr. Hartsgrove described Hygge Homesharing, a new housing program that matches younger and older people in the LGBTQ community, so that the younger person receives reduced rent in return for assisting the older person with household duties. As Ms. Hébert said, “It’s sometimes worth dreaming as dreams can be achieved.”

By Suzanne Charest