People who live and work near a struggling part of downtown Ottawa say they are 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 on a portion of the sidewalk on Murray Street that community workers have nicknamed the area the “beach.”
Louise Beaudoin, the nurse in charge of the monitored injection site at Shepherds of Good Hope – one of three nearby shelters – said her staff responded to seven overdoses in a recent eight-hour shift.
Now, she said, they are facing an increase in violence.
“I've been doing this for 20 years and I've never felt threatened. But for the past three or four years, we've had security guards 24 hours a day because the level of violence has increased dramatically,” Beaudoin told Radio-Canada in a French-language interview.
Pastor Gordon Belyea said police sometimes call for help because his church on King Edward Avenue has surveillance cameras outside.
“I saw two people die [of an overdose] “On video,” he said in French. “In both cases the guy was alone, people left.” All alone, deserted. That hits the mark.”
Dealing with the drug and homelessness problem in the region has become part of everyday life for many.
“They're like zombies,” said Paul Viau, a local resident who says he's been robbed twice in the past three months.
“My son – he's 10 now – doesn't like coming out here. He sees it all the time.”
At a Lowertown day care center, a preschool teacher combs the yard every morning looking for syringes.
“Every day there is something,” Tea Markovic, who takes her child to daycare, told a reporter in French. “Things we don't want our kids to see.”
A resident said he was stuck in his home after someone passed out outside his door. Sometimes they also find excrement.
Arrests despite worsening of the problem
According to police statistics, arrests for drug possession fell by 36 percent last year compared to 2021. Arrests of suspected drug dealers also fell.
“We have limited resources. So how can we use these resources accurately and as efficiently as possible?” asked Const. Paul Stam, a community police officer who recently took reporters on a tour of the area.
Stam told Radio-Canada that officers only intervene when violence breaks out.
“It's just not an effective and efficient use of resources to keep arresting them, subjecting them to the criminal justice system, going through the cycle of criminalization again, and then never dealing with these complex, underlying issues.”
According to Ottawa EMTs, they've administered more than 300 naloxone injections across the city this year alone
Armed with long tweezers and a collection box, Chris Grinham, who has lived in Lowertown for 24 years, regularly collects syringes at the housing association 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 More than 1.7 million syringes have been seized across the city, including from needle boxes, harm reduction programs and “needle hunters” like Grinham.
In 2022, that number was closer to 2.5 million.
The nearby Sandy Hill Community Health Center said it had a total of about 18,000 visits to its monitored injection site in 2021, including 871 unique visitors. There are two other locations in the area as well as a mobile city location in a van.
OPH estimates, based on preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Coroner, that there have been an average of five suspected drug overdose deaths per week since the start of the year. In 2022, there were 141 deaths in Ottawa.
Accommodation, services focused on the market
Grinham doesn't like to call the police, but does when things get aggressive.
“I mean, most of them aren't bad people,” he remarked. “You're just in a bad situation.”
The shelters in the area are overcrowded, although not everyone uses them.
Julie Archambault, who lives on the streets by day and sleeps with a friend at night, is too scared of shelters.
She said traffickers of all kinds are drawn to the concentration of people suffering from homelessness and addiction.
“There is violence, both against girls and against men, and they mistreat the people here at the shelter,” she said in French. “As a result, they work on the streets. They treat them like animals.”
District councilwoman Stéphanie Plante is among those who would like services to be spread across the city rather than concentrated in such a small geographic area.
“Tomorrow if we put all the libraries, all the arenas, all the pools in Ward 12, you'd be like, ‘Hey, that's not right!' said the Rideau-Vanier City Council.
A group of retailers at ByWard Market want to meet with the mayor to discuss the pressures their businesses are facing.
“That really has to be a priority,” Stam said during the tour.
“If we're going to have this level of service and this concentration of services down here, the number one priority has to be we have to reduce the impact on the surrounding community to zero.”
Others have advocated the legalization of hard drugs, arguing that criminalizing them only makes the problem worse.
Archambault appeals to all Ottawa politicians for help.
“Please give them the help they need,” she said in French. “And please wake up here in Ottawa. All governments. We have to help them because they are dying here.”