One downtown Ottawa community association is urging the city's 24 wards to all take on their own fair share of social services for vulnerable residents.
The Lowertown Community Association (LCA) has made a more even distribution of services for people facing issues like homelessness, poverty and addiction its "number one" priority for 2023, according to its president Sylvie Bigras.
"We've got families who tell us, 'My five-year-old daughter can't play outside because there's needles every morning in our front lawn.' We have people who say their kids walk to school with their parents on Facetime because they're so nervous," Bigras said.
"We have vulnerable people who need help, and we appreciate that and we want to help. But we also want to provide a safe environment for the people who live, work and visit here."
Many services for Ottawa's homeless residents are concentrated in Lowertown and the ByWard Market. The Shepherds of Good Hope is in the midst of a major expansion to its Murray Street facility, one the community association has already expressed disappointment with.
Instead of overloading the core with those services, Bigras said her community association would like to see smaller centres spread across the city.
A good model could be St. Luke's Table, Bigras said, which is temporarily providing drop-in services on Bronson Avenue after the Somerset Street West church it was housed in caught fire in October.
Bigras said their pitch — still at the conversation stage, not the implementation stage — was essentially copied from a similar initiative already underway in Montreal.
"We know long term [it would be] cheaper than what we're doing now," she said. "The emergency shelters, [having] people staying there for 10 years, costs way more to society than getting them the help they need."
Downtown can't solve 'complex problems' alone
The community association's pitch to spread out services across Ottawa "just makes total complete sense," said Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante.
"If you wanted your child to learn to skate, play hockey [or] ringette and you found out that every single arena was in Rideau-Vanier, would you think that's fair?" said Plante, who has been helping with the proposal.
"The downtown can't really solve all of these complex problems. And asking us to do so is just resulting in mismanagement and chaos and over-reliance on shelters."
The councillor said she's talking to city staff about what can be done under the current bylaw and zoning regimes, as well as with other councillors in Ottawa and in other Canadian cities, before introducing any motions at council.
She said most Ottawa wards are at least "halfway there" when it comes to understanding the importance of having food banks, affordable housing and similar programs nearby.
"My sense is that as the LRT is going to be pushing into the suburbs, people [will ride it downtown] throughout the day, and then at night they'll be encamping or being homeless in more suburban areas," Plante said.
"We are seeing [this] in Toronto and Vancouver. This is happening there already."