People who live near Dundonald Park in Ottawa's Centretown neighbourhood have called on the city to help them reclaim the park from illegal activity, drug use and fighting.
Darren Eke, who has lived nearby for a decade, said the park should be a safe place for neighbours from all walks of life to meet, and for children to play.
"It's like a mini-United Nations, we want to keep it that way," Eke said of the park located in Somerset ward.
"When people in particular start to yell and fight, causing problems all through the park. That's when other people start to become afraid. That's when people stop using the park. Why does it have to be this way?"
Eke said illegal activities like drug dealing have increased during the pandemic with police and paramedics responding to issues multiple times a day. That's why he signed a petition calling for the city to act.
The petition calls for access to health and social supports for people who use drugs in the park to address the issues underpinning criminality, as well as better lighting and waste disposal.
Eke said he's both worried about the people who use drugs and need access to help, as well as children who are at risk of coming across a discarded syringe.
Tong Zhao-Ansari, a community developer with Centretown Community Health Centre, said the concerns are valid, but she hopes residents and the city operate in an empathetic way toward people in the park noting anyone can fall down the path of poverty or addiction.
"Through education and through being aware of what are the causes, people ... also will be equipped with some skills to de-escalate the situations at the park that will help the situation," she said.
Pandemic worsened park 'challenge'
Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward includes Dundonald Park, said they have also observed the situation worsen.
"There's no doubt that the homeless crisis that we're seeing in this city ... the opioid crisis with the pandemic have combined to make Dundonald Park a challenge," McKenney said.
McKenney said the closure of many public spaces and programs have led to people living in nearby rooming houses to seek other places to congregate.
They said better housing would be an important way to address the issue. In the meantime, McKenney is working on a "stabilization plan" for the park that would include services during the day and plans to keep the park clean.
Housing issues partly to blame
Part of that stabilization plan needs to include a housing-first strategy, according to Zhao-Ansari. She noted it's not just about getting people into homes, but making sure they're secure and safe wherever they are.
"With housing, people [are] not being properly housed. They are not being supported to help with the transition of getting into housing from being homelessness," she said.
"There is a lot need to be done to address the gaps in the system."
McKenney, the city's housing liaison, understands how this issue relates to housing. They were the engine behind a move in early 2020 to make Ottawa the first city in Canada to declare a housing and homelessness emergency.
In a statement, the city said it's working with social services organizations and other community partners to address concerns about Dundonald Park.
Laila Gibbons, associate general manager of social and community services, said the city is developing pilot projects that will support residents and people who need additional support.
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