Homeless in the Glebe: a compassionate approach

A shelter constructed of found materials near the old Mr. Muffler shop bears witness to homelessness in the Glebe. Photo: Trevor Greenway

by Trevor Greenway

The Glebe is one of Ottawa’s most cherished downtown neighbourhoods, bursting with young families, a suite of great shops and restaurants and a bustling entertainment scene. But despite the cozy village vibe the neighbourhood is known for, it’s clear the Glebe is not immune to the socio-economic issues that are plaguing cities, provinces and countries around the globe.

While there has been a noticeable increase in street activity in the area – panhandling, public intoxication and drug use – these issues are not unique to the Glebe alone.

According to the Alliance to End Homelessness, chronic homelessness in the city increased a staggering 21 per cent between 2014 and 2017 and, with Ottawa’s population expected to grow by another 16 per cent between 2016 and 2031, the situation is expected to become even more widespread.

When dealing with the many complex issues surrounding homelessness and poverty, such as drug addiction and mental illness, experts say that the best approach always starts with compassion.

“I was told when I first entered this industry by one of my social workers here to not make eye contact with people on the street, but I disagree,” says executive director of the Ottawa Mission Peter Tilley. “Sometimes I think a little nod, a ‘good morning,’ or a ‘good day’ doesn’t hurt. I think rather than ignoring them, it’s just a nod or an acknowledgement that they exist. You’re a human being and you exist. It’s about compassion and empathy. They didn’t ask to be there, certainly on a cold day, begging on the street.”

Tilley spoke of the stigma those living on the street face every day, whether it’s someone yelling insults as they drive by, or the many who breeze past them on the sidewalk without a glance. But in his 14 years as executive director at the Ottawa Food Bank, and now his on-street work at the Ottawa Mission, he has seen a common denominator in a majority of the cases he has worked on: childhood trauma. “Not all of them, but quite often that is the one common ingredient; just a horrible childhood experience that makes me think, ‘I get why you are here,’” adds Tilley.

While it’s clear that residents in the Glebe are compassionate and generous, Tilley says there needs to be a balance between facing these tough issues as a community and remaining empathetic. He said that giving money directly to those living on the street can actually be detrimental to their health and well-being. He points to an Ottawa Police statistic that suggests a majority of individuals living on the street will use money to feed an addiction, rather than to feed or house themselves. He says residents should instead donate to local shelters, soup kitchens and addiction and mental health agencies, as the money will go towards giving these individuals a solid support network they can rely on.

Another approach is to purchase a warm meal or beverage for someone, rather than giving money, but Tilley strongly suggests asking first if they are hungry or thirsty, as a situation can escalate quickly, especially when dealing with those struggling with addiction. “It’s the imbalance that the drug addiction brings to the brain, to the mental health piece,” says Tilley. “Somebody could well-meaning bring that bowl of soup or coffee and suddenly have the situation reversed on them and be in a really uncomfortable situation.”

If this does happen, both Tilley and the Ottawa Police urge residents to call police and to report instances of aggressive behaviour to authorities. Centretown Community Police Officer Stephanie Lemieux says that shop owners and residents should not engage with aggressive individuals, as public safety is the main priority. Reporting is key in dealing with aggressive situations, as police presence will increase if they identify an area as a hot spot.

“Please call 911 if they are aggressive or a danger to themselves or others; otherwise if they are simply drinking or intoxicated in public, you can call the non-emergency line to have officers attend to remove them or take them to detox or a hospital, depending on the situation,” says Lemieux. “Knowing to call police when these individuals become aggressive is important. I am in no way saying that people should not give to our vulnerable populations, however I do think that monies are best provided to social service agencies directly. (Social organizations) can help people with the services they offer. Or with extra money, they can add programs to assist people who are in need.”

Tilley also noted that residents need to be aware of the services that are available to our vulnerable populations – not just the Mission, but the Somerset Community Health Centre, the Salvation Army, the Ottawa Food Bank and the Ottawa Mission’s own “Second Stage” home right here in the Glebe, which has seen more than 100 at-risk men turn their lives around.

“We also live in a city with three major downtown shelters, and all sorts of food programs around (the) area: the St. Luke’s lunch club, the Bank Street emergency food centre, Centre 507,” says Tilley.

Part of what makes Tilley’s and other social organizations work tough is the lack of government funding. Tilley says the Mission’s budget has been frozen for the last six years. This is why donating to services in Ottawa is important. Initiatives like “kindness meters” are raising funds and awareness for social services in both Fredericton and Victoria, with the latter pulling in close to $3,000 in a couple of months. While there are arguments on both sides of this initiative, Tilley likes the idea, more for the awareness, as it encourages people to give to services rather than individuals.

There is no one solution to the complex issues of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness in this city, but ignoring the problem won’t help either. Increasing the quality of life for these less-fortunate individuals will ultimately increase the quality of life in our cities and neighbourhoods, and it all starts with compassion.

Community Resources

Police: 9-11 (Emergency); 613-236-1222 (non-emergency)
City of Ottawa Operations: 3-11
The Ottawa Mission:
The Shepherds of Good Hope: 613-789-8210
Centretown Community Health Centre: 613-233-4697
Ottawa Food Bank: 613-745-7001

Trevor Greenway is responsible for communications at the Glebe BIA (Business Improvement Area).

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