A homeless man was trying to warm a can of soup jammed into a heat vent at the corner of Ottawa’s ByWard Market when Michael Maidment and the Salvation Army’s outreach team came upon him one frigid night last winter.
For Maidment, that man — wrapped in a sleeping bag in the shadow of a luxury condominium development — is one face of poverty in the nation’s capital.
“One of the great ironies when you’re standing in the Market at two in the morning and you help someone out who is homeless with a warm pair of socks is to see the Peace Tower in the background,” said Maidment, the chair of the City of Ottawa’s Poverty Issues Advisory Committee.
The irony Maidment refers to is that as a government town, Ottawa is considered largely recession-proof — and the nation’s legislators have the power to lower rates of poverty not just here, but across the country.
Despite that, as the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty draws near on Oct. 19, the gap between rich and poor in Ottawa grows.
Based on 2006 figures from Statistics Canada, the overall poverty rate in Ottawa was 18.6 per cent, up from 18.4 per cent in 2000 — and that was prior to the toll the recession has taken. One in six children lives in poverty in Ottawa, compared to one in five children across the rest of the province.
Food banks here reported a nine per cent increase in visits from March 2007 to March 2009, even as their donations dropped.
Particular segments of society in Ottawa, such as new immigrants, refugees and the elderly, are harder hit than others, said Dominique Paris-MacKay, anti-poverty community co-ordinator for the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa.
“We’re not making ends meet here. We don’t have enough food to serve the people who access our services,” said Paris-MacKay.
Although they may not be visibly homeless, there are also thousands of residents who make up the working poor and live paycheque to paycheque, largely because of an inadequate supply of affordable housing.
There are roughly 10,000 people waiting on the city’s housing list.
“One of the biggest causes of poverty in Ottawa is the lack of affordable housing,” said Paris-MacKay.