Mental health and substance use issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly among Ottawa’s homeless population and those at risk of homelessness, have reached a point where action is urgently needed.
That was the message delivered this week by the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA), an association of 19 BIAs in the region.
“There is a growing social crisis in Ottawa with the Downtown Byward area at the core,” read the statement. “This area is where urgent attention is needed; however, issues of mental health and addiction are growing in neighbouring BIAs and communities.
“There needs to be a plan to address the social issues of mental health and addictions that are proliferating and witnessed in our communities.”
Michelle Groulx, executive director of OCOBIA, says there’s been a dramatic increase in the numbers of street-entrenched people during the pandemic, accompanied by a similar growth in drug use and mental health episodes.
“Usually businesses are pretty good about monitoring and helping people who are on the streets, but with businesses being closed, there hasn’t been that finger on the pulse.”
Business owners, she adds, are reluctant to call police to deal with situations. “They have this empathy and want to see them being taken care of in an empathetic way. They don’t want to see people arrested just for being in the street.”
And while the ByWard Market is typically viewed as Ottawa’s Ground Zero, Groulx says similar issues are now increasingly occurring elsewhere.
“We’re seeing this happening in Sparks Street, Bank Street, the Glebe, Westboro, Wellington West … There are people who are not doing any harm to themselves or others, but there are the people who are having episodes, and that’s growing more because of the excess of meth and other heavy drugs that are being seen, and these people are relapsing every day.
”And this is going to be on repeat forever until something changes systematically with providing actual social services and programming.”
Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health, points to a cascade of factors, including an increasingly lethal illicit drug supply, the closure of many social services and programming, and social isolation, as worsening during the pandemic. The isolation felt by Ottawa’s vulnerable population has been so pronounced, she says, that OICH this month launched an outdoor drop-in social program in the parking lot at the Shepherds of Good Hope.
“I don’t think anyone can say they’re better off as a result of the pandemic,” she says. “What you’re seeing is what we expected to see, except I don’t think anybody expected it would be as bad as it actually is.”
Muckle adds that, as a result of the worsening situation, her organization has been seeing clients return for services after years of stability.
“People we hadn’t seen in a decade, who had been in a very positive recovery and doing really well with mental health and substance use, were suddenly homeless again. They just didn’t make it.
“I’m heartened by the BIAs’ commentary because their messaging really is a call for us to come together as a community to figure out what we can do and to better understand everybody’s perspectives, because out of everybody’s perspectives we will probably come up with better solutions than we’ve had in the past.
“COVID,” she adds, “illustrated all of the cracks in our system, so rebuilding a system that’s still full of cracks is not really that useful. But, fundamentally, we’re dealing with problems that we weren’t dealing with 18 months ago.”
Muckle notes, too, how many of the problems overlap. The increasingly toxic drug supply, for example, has greatly affected people’s mental health, both through its more deleterious effects on users’ brains, as well as the neural consequences from resulting overdoses.
“That’s related to the use of stimulants, such as crystal meth, that were not a big part of the market prior to COVID.”
Tong Zhao-Ansari, a community developer with the Centretown Community Health Centre, agrees that Ottawa’s most vulnerable population has greatly suffered during the pandemic. “Even now, with things slowly opening up, a lot of services haven’t reappeared yet, so we’re not even catching up.”
As an example of a significant problem during the pandemic, Zhao-Ansari points to the sub-poverty level of Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program payments, compared to the more generous Canada Emergency Response Benefit ones.
“People were worried about putting food on the table, and all this stress worsened their mental health. The people we’ve been seeing definitely got worse during the pandemic.”
Tamara Chipperfield, director of mental health and addictions at CCHC, says that although they were able to remain open for some social supports during the pandemic, many of their community development activities, such as those held at Dundonald Park, had to be shut down due to pandemic restrictions.
“We’re hoping to get back some of those activities during the summer as restrictions are lifted, but are we able to do what we think needs to be done? No, not without additional resources.”
Ashley Hopkins, co-chair of the ByWard Market BIA, notes the disproportionate concentration of social services offered in their catchment area, but adds that the systems now in place aren’t adequate. “If modern systems responding to today’s crisis-level housing, addictions and mental health challenges are in place, the effects of this would not be as detrimental to the overall area as they are today.”
Her BIA, she says, would like to see better coordination of mental health outreach, funding for safe supply programs, and a greater investment in permanent housing.
“This solution has been required for some time. The daily lives of those in the area are being so drastically impacted … that there is a very real narrative that business owners will simply close up shop and residents will simply relocate because there appears to be nothing being done on behalf of the city to ensure safety and livability within the ByWard Market district.
“The time for research has passed and the time for action to preserve our area and save lives is upon us.”
The OCOBIA, Groulx says, is advocating for the city, and other levels of government, to budget resources for an adequate mental health crises response and social programming. “It’s an issue that is just growing and growing. You have panhandling, mental health crises, drug relapse, plus a lot of break-and-enters into BIA businesses.”
Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, who is council’s liaison for housing and homelessness, agrees that the situation needs to change.
“When I look at the press release the OCOBIA put out, I think of a program out of Seattle called JustCare, which was established with a local business group, the city and social services providers to address these very issues. It’s what you need to do; you need to bring services to people who need them, in humane and caring ways.”
McKenney admits that not enough resources have been allocated by the city to properly address the issue.
“But there should be. We are responsible for that. We make those decisions, every year as a council, and when we don’t allocate enough to the well-being of the most vulnerable people in our community, we are failing as a council.”