• By: Dan Donovan

Expressing concern and making declarations is not an achievement

Ottawa city councillor Catherine McKenney’s motion to declare a housing and homeless emergency in the national capital passed unanimously at city council on a cold night at the end of January. Typically, councillor’s changed the original motion to call it both a ‘crisis and an emergency’. According to city staff, no other Canadian city has declared a housing emergency in their jurisdiction. “I think it’s something that we can be proud of,” McKenney said afterward, adding, ‘The call today for an emergency is so that we will have said, as a city, to everyone in our shelters, to people sleeping outside, for the children in motels and their families, to women who flee abuse and get sent back with their kids into often very dangerous and sometimes deadly circumstances, that we’re going to try harder.”

And therein lies the problem with this city council.

They actually believe they have done something to help the homeless by having a meeting and passing a meaningless motion. Worse, after doing so, they then give themselves a pat on the back for doing nothing.

The homeless issue, mental health crisis and drug dependency disaster playing out before our eyes in Ottawa exists because there is zero real political leadership confronting it. There is no long-term or even short-term plan or vision to get the hundreds of drug addicts, alcoholics and people in crisis who walk around in a continuous daze off the streets and into treatment. That’s because there is no commitment to fund the kind of treatment and interventions necessary to end this scourge. Ottawa’s ByWard Market and Lowertown area are a new version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, known for its high levels of drug use, poverty, crime, mental illness, prostitution and homelessness.

It will take a caring, committed and visionary leader with a plan to end the shameful conditions in the area that stun tourists and others who think they may have stumbled onto the set of the Walking Dead, instead of being just a few blocks from Parliament Hill.

For over three decades, Ottawa councillors have implemented a series of Kafkaesque policies that include providing free injection sites, free methadone, free syringes and even free drugs to addicts, along with a cup of soup and a bed at night at one of the many homeless shelters in the ByWard Market, before booting them out each morning until the next night.

These policies combined with the fentanyl crisis has resulted in the number of addicts and homeless people being at an all-time high. In recent years, we have witnessed the spiritual, moral and physical decline of large sections of the ByWard Market and Lowertown that are truly a national disgrace. For residents here and  within a few blocks beyond the ‘zombie’ zone, there is only frustration and little else. Worse, the controversial plan by the Salvation Army (SA) to drop another massive homeless shelter, blocks away in Vanier is patently ridiculous. SA and City of Ottawa officials who claim the “social services complex” won’t have a negative impact on surrounding businesses or homes are blatantly lying.

The city requires a ten-year plan like the National Homelessness Strategy model implemented in Finland combined with mandatory rehab to permanently end this ongoing crisis. Such a plan would entail shelter, programming and counselling to get all of the homeless people and drug addicts off the streets and into rehab. The expensive yet short-term financial cost of such a plan will bring immense long-term benefits for the investment. It may cost upwards of a half-billion dollars. Even if the city borrowed the money on a fixed long-term interest loan to do this, it would be worth the investment.

The addicts and others who are suffering include many displaced and homeless Inuit, Indigenous and minority people who require intervention. The petty crime, urination, defecation, theft and harassment that has become normalized as a by-product of this health crisis must come to an end.

The homeless, the poor and the hundreds of street people suffering in Ottawa need real help — not useless slogans and motions. Everyone deserves to live with basic dignity.