Ottawa Citizen, Feb 01, 2021
Recently, I joined the Ottawa Street Medics for a four-person ‘care-and-support patrol.’ It was -15 C. We met people sheltering in 24/7 laundromats, on the move, or huddled under sleeping bags on the street. And COVID has suddenly made it all much, much worse.
The streets of Ottawa have never been lonelier or harder for the people living on them.
The lockdown means that Ottawa’s homeless residents have fewer supports than ever. COVID-19 outbreaks have forced shelters to close their doors to anyone who is not already a client. In response to this and deadly temperatures lower than -20 C, the city has rented a youth hostel and hotel rooms for COVID-positive shelter clients to self-isolate. They have also opened three community centres to provide showers and food, as well as the Tom Brown Respite Centre for overnight stays. It remains to be seen if this will be enough.
Recently, I joined the Ottawa Street Medics for a four-person “care-and-support patrol” through Chinatown and downtown.
We pulled two wagons filled with granola bars, Gatorade, hand warmers, protein drinks and winter clothing. It was -15 C. We met people sheltering in 24/7 laundromats, on the move, or huddled under sleeping bags on the street.
We found one of our neighbours outside a convenience store, where he’d been buying a coffee to warm up. His only warm clothes were a hat and a sweater, and he was shivering uncontrollably. I asked if he needed a coat. “I’ve got one,” he said, gesturing vaguely to his small pile of belongings in a somewhat sheltered corner. But he wasn’t wearing it.
In Canada and the United States, street medics are groups of loosely organized volunteers who provide basic first aid and emotional support at demonstrations and protests. The Ottawa Street Medics do this and more, organizing weekly drops of food and supplies in the downtown area.
So, what do our unhoused neighbours need right now, apart from housing? The things you’d expect, and some things you wouldn’t.
Bottled water and Gatorade are always in high demand. Dehydration is a common problem on the streets of Canada’s capital. There are very few public washrooms or water fountains.
A constant flow of warm blankets, winter clothing and waterproof items is needed, since the freeze-and-thaw cycle of Ottawa winters means clothing and blankets often get wet and icy cold. Without a way to dry them, wet blankets and clothing are practically garbage.
Just listen to this account by the Ottawa Street Medics’ founder Daniel Bailey:
“The other day I saw a man who was hiding out in a bank lobby late at night just … wringing the dirty water out of everything he owned,” he wrote to me. “He hung up his clothes everywhere he could and they dripped so much (the water) pooled underneath. When I came back with food and cigs for him, he was almost out of all of his wet clothes, rubbing his bare feet between his hands.”
A couple of cigarettes are one of the few comfort items available on the streets. Yes, they are very bad for your health. But it’s something warm and social and humanizing on a cold night.
Socks. Socks and underwear. People without a home have no laundry facilities, so these are one-use items.
We helped about 15 people that night, fewer than normal. Some were familiar faces, some new to us, and some of them had a home but little money for food.
The Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa says the number of Ottawa residents sleeping outside has doubled since the start of the pandemic. There are 1,900 people – including children – sleeping in shelters every night, and 2,500 households at risk of eviction. What’s to be done?
People have called for more washrooms in downtown Ottawa for years, most recently with the “Gotta Go” campaign.
In January 2020, city council passed Coun. Catherine McKenney’s motion declaring a housing crisis and emergency in Ottawa. This was followed by precisely zero meaningful action. A month ago, council rejected McKenney’s proposal to raise property taxes by 1.33 per cent to generate $13.2 million for housing and social agencies. Somehow, amid evictions, hardships and disease, a majority of council decided the status quo of underfunded social programs was acceptable.
What can the average Ottawa resident do right now? Ask your homeless neighbours if they need anything: a sandwich, a hot drink, a blanket, a waterproof tarp or a foam pad so they don’t have to sleep on icy pavement. You can also support the street-level organizations who help them. It could be the Ottawa Street Medics, or Hit the Streets, or Minwaashin Lodge.
We can choose the Ottawa we want to live in.
Cullen Bird is a freelance journalist and Ottawa resident. He has volunteered with the Ottawa Street Medics since October.