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Overwhelmed residents in downtown Ottawa plead for help as fentanyl crisis worsens

People who live and work near a struggling part of downtown Ottawa say they’re running out of options to deal with the fentanyl crisis that has ravaged several blocks of the Lowertown community.

So many drug users sit or lie down on part of the Murray Street sidewalk that community workers have nicknamed the area “the beach.”

Louise Beaudoin, the nurse in charge of the supervised injection site located at the Shepherds of Good Hope — one of three nearby shelters — said her employees responded to seven overdoses in a recent eight-hour shift.

Now, she said they’re dealing with a surge in violence.

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“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never felt threatened. But for three or four years, we have had security guards 24 hours a day because the level of violence has increased drastically,” Beaudoin told Radio-Canada in a French-language interview.

A nursing manager wearing a shirt with the logo of the Woodstock music festival.
Louise Beaudoin, the Ottawa Inner City Health nurse in charge of the supervised injection site located at the Shepherds of Good Hope, has witnessed the situation in Lowertown worsen in recent years. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

Pastor Gordon Belyea said police sometimes call for help because his church on King Edward Avenue has surveillance cameras outside.

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“I saw two people die [of an overdose] on video,” he said in French. “In both cases, the guy was alone, people were walking away. All alone, abandoned. That hits.”

A pastor sits in a church.
Pastor Gordon Belyea says police sometimes call for help because his church on King Edward Avenue has surveillance cameras outside. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

Dealing with the area’s drug and homelessness issues has become part of the daily routine for many.

“They’re like zombies,” said Paul Viau, a resident who says he’s been robbed twice in the last three months.

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“My son — he’s 10 right now — doesn’t like to come out here. He sees it all the time.”

At a daycare in Lowertown, an educator combs the yard in search of syringes each morning.

A crowd of people mill about on the sidewalk. In the foreground graffiti details the "10 Hood Commandments."
Lowertown residents say their community is on the front lines of the drug crisis. There are three shelters, three day centres and three supervised injection sites within about one square kilometre in the broader area. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

“Every day there is something,” Tea Markovic, who takes her child to the daycare, told a reporter in French. “Things we don’t want our children to see.”

One resident said they’ve been stuck inside their home after someone passed out in front of their door. Other times they find excrement.

Arrests down despite worsening problem

According to police statistics, arrests for drug possession were down 36 per cent last year compared to 2021. Arrests of suspected drug dealers also fell.

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“We have limited resources, so how can we be precise in using those resources as efficiently as possible?” asked Const. Paul Stam, a community police officer who recently took reporters for a tour of the area.

 

An Ottawa police officer is in the foreground.
Const. Paul Stam is a community police officer who took reporters for a tour of the area. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

 

Stam told Radio-Canada that officers only intervene when things become violent.

“It’s just not an effective and efficient use of resources to constantly be arresting them, putting them through the criminal justice system, back through the cycle of criminalization, and then never addressing these complex, deeper-rooted issues.”

According to Ottawa paramedics, they alone have administered more than 300 naloxone injections this year across the city

A man suffering from homelessness is lying down on the sidewalk. His sign reads, "Homeless. God Bless. Thank you."
More than 2,000 people across the city stay in emergency shelters each night, according to the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

Equipped with long tweezers and a collection box, Chris Grinham, a Lowertown resident of 24 years, regularly collects syringes around the housing co-operative where he works.

“Some days you find three or four, some days you find 30 or 40,” he said.

In 2018, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) estimated it retrieved more than 1.7 million syringes citywide, including from needle drop boxes, harm reduction programs and from “needle hunters” like Grinham.

In 2022, that number was closer to 2.5 million.

The nearby Sandy Hill Community Health Centre says it saw approximately 18,000 total visits to its supervised injection site in 2021, with 871 unique visitors. There are two other sites in the area, along with a mobile city site in a van.

OPH estimates a median of five suspected drug-related overdose deaths per week since the start of the year, based on preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Coroner. In 2022, Ottawa saw 141 deaths.

A man smokes from a crack pipe.
On the eastern edge of the ByWard Market, illegal drugs are consumed openly. Some look for a vein to inject, while others heat up crack pipes with lighters. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

Shelters, services concentrated in market

Grinham doesn’t like to call police, but has when things get aggressive.

“I mean, most of them are not bad people,” he observed. “They’re just in a bad situation.”

A man with a burly beard stares at the camera.
Chris Grinham, who has lived in Lowertown for 24 years, says the situation has gotten progressively worse. He said the pandemic struck a devastating blow to the neighbourhood. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

Shelters in the area are overwhelmed, though not everyone uses them.

Julie Archambault, who lives on the streets during the day and sleeps with a friend at night, is too afraid of shelters.

She said traffickers of all kinds are attracted to the concentration of people suffering homelessness and addiction.

“There is violence, on girls and on guys, and they abuse people here at the shelter,” she said in French. “It makes them work in the street. They treat them like animals.”

A woman with braided hair is in the foreground.
Julie Archambault, who lives on the street during the day, says traffickers of all kinds are attracted to the concentration of people suffering homelessness and addiction. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

The ward’s city councillor Stéphanie Plante is among those who want to see the services scattered throughout the city rather than concentrating them in such a small geographic area.

“If tomorrow we put all the libraries, all the arenas, all the swimming pools in Ward 12, you would say, ‘Hey, that’s not right!” the Rideau-Vanier councillor said.

A group of ByWard Market retailers wants to meet with the mayor to discuss the pressure facing their businesses.

“That really needs to be a priority,” said Stam during the tour.

“If we are going to have this level of services and this concentration of services down here, priority number one needs to be, we need to reduce the impact on the surrounding community down to zero.”

Others have recommended legalizing hard drugs, arguing their criminalization only worsens the problem.

A pair of hands hold a pipe.
Drugs cut with fentanyl have been proliferating since before the pandemic. (Patrick André Perron/Radio-Canada)

Archambault is appealing to all Ottawa politicians for help.

“Please give the help they need,” she said in French. “And please wake up here in Ottawa. All governments. We must help them because they are dying here.”

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