Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I don't know how we all sleep at night

When I moved to Ottawa in 2006, I was astounded at the levels of poverty, homelessness and drug abuse in my neighbourhood. Much has been written or reported about homelessness in Ottawa:
  • 7,045 people stayed in emergency shelters in 2008.
  • There was a 13% increase in use of shelter beds in 2008 (both via).
  • Our city has a Community Action Plan on Homelessness.
  • CTV W5 report entitled Capital Shame (can be watched here).
Let me be clear: there are many things I love about this city (Isobel's cupcakes, the canal, sunset over the Rideau Falls, Lac Leamy). That being said, I am, frankly, ashamed to live here, ashamed that we, as residents, allow this situation to continue, and, in fact, to worsen. Things I have observed/experienced since moving here:
  • Drug trades in broad daylight
  • My friend was asked if she was a prostitute while walking to work (before 9 am)
  • Dirty, bloody needles on the streets near my house and near local schools
  • People shooting up
  • Lots and lots and lots and lots of drinking, enough to put me off drinking outright some days.
Things I have learned about:
  • Needle exchange programs
  • Signs that someone has smoked crack (sores on their face, like really bad acne, caused by smoke)
  • How to wake up someone who is dead asleep or passed out on the street/at work (reach your leg out and tap the back of their knee; that way, if they lash out, your leg is behind theirs instead of in front, where you can get whacked)
  • Homeless children and teens
  • Shelters for those who have been kicked out of all the other shelters for violent behaviour.
  • Events like this, and groups like the Ottawa Leadership Table on Homelessness (thanks, Kate, for the link)
  • SCAN legislation (in progress)
Needless to say, I am no longer "bothered" by being asked for money every twenty paces when walking in the Market. For one thing, I take the sound advice of a Centre 454 staff member, who told me she never gives anyone money because "there are just too many places they can go in the city." I am, however, utterly horrified, and deeply, deeply saddened, to cross paths every day with people who live lives of such utter desperation. I have debated with women smoking crack in the washroom at my workplace. I have offered to take the drunk, weeping man outside on Rideau St. to the Mission. I have given money, once, tearfully, to a girl my age crouched alone at the corner of Sussex and Rideau (across from Chateau Laurier). Too many times, I have stopped and watched people: are they going to get hit crossing the street? Are they going to be preyed upon by that group at the corner? Are they going to get out of that fight with their john in one piece? Are they really OK sleeping there?

Part of me thinks we should all just stop what we're doing, permanently, for as long as it takes to make this city better. That's it: nothing I do in my daily life could possibly be as important as ending this suffering. I make this tenuous link to education, and literacy, lifting people up and giving them one path out of the lives they are currently living, but I don't entirely believe it sometimes. Sometimes, it's just about a safe place to sleep. I know that many of the people I pass on the street have a list of attendant issues: unemployment, addictions, histories of being abused, criminal activity, mental health issues. Believe me, I have seen most of it walk through the solid oak doors of my workplace.

There are so many organisations in this city to help people going through rough times: the boon, and also the curse, is that they are all in one neighbourhood (it happens to be mine, but whatever). The point is, what is the use in creating a ghetto? Many people I talk to, who come to my workplace to get away from these enclaves of misery, say that they have trouble getting back on their feet in this neighbourhood: their dealer, their drinking buddies, or whomever, are simply waiting for them on every streetcorner. How can they escape the lifestyle?

All this literally in the shadow of Parliament, a few blocks away from monuments celebrating heroic Canadians. No sign of heroism in Parliament for these people: the only heroes I see are my staff, making friends with the regulars, and the staff at the Mission, Center 454, the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, and so many others.

I have trouble really enjoying Ottawa, or enjoying the grandeur of the city. I find I am mostly thinking about who's out on the street near my house, especially in the dead of winter, and why no one is doing anything about it. Until the W5 piece (in which they do a good job of putting politicians on the spot, and getting nowhere), no one was talking about it outside of Ottawa. Frankly, no one's talking about it within Ottawa. It's been two years since our mayor called the homeless "pigeons," and I've seen Police Chief Vern White making a concerted effort to change the Market, and there are some plans to construct housing on Merivale (non-Ottawan readers: that would be outside the ghetto in my 'hood - rejoice!), but nothing from O'Brien (OK, well, except this, but that's really all).

We should be doing more. I should be able to sleep.


  1. I visited Ottawa recently, and stayed with a friend who lives near the U of O campus. I, too, was struck by the same phenomena you describe -- drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, etc. As a Canadian finishing up an MLIS, I know that Ottawa is a likely place to look for a job, and it can be such an amazing city, but I worry that the city will become consumed by these problems (especially if they continue to go unaddressed by politicians).

  2. thanks for the reply, Kate. Yes, Ottawa worries me...