The Rideau underpass and the underclass - Metro US

The Rideau underpass and the underclass

The Alliance to End Homelessness this month released its sixth annual report on Ottawa, and by almost every measure, the problem is worse.

Ottawa’s homeless, according to the report, number 7,445 (up from last year’s 7,045). This includes 1,317 children (up from 1,179). The average emergency shelter stay was 57 days (up from 51).

Our solution? Two years ago, the NCC cut down trees in Confederation Park where people were taking shelter. This winter, Hartman’s grocery store removed the piano and free seating area in its foyer, which had become an indoor gathering spot, and public benches were removed at Cooper and Bank after local businesses complained about unsightly loiterers.

“You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” seems a rather harsh message to send people with no home to go to, and shooing them away to somewhere less visible doesn’t make them safer.

The Rideau underpass is another front in this battle over public space. The underpass itself is butt ugly, with pedestrians sent troll-like under the bridge to make room for traffic. But it provides shelter and became a popular place for those with nowhere else to go.

In 2006, a young homeless man, Steven Beriault, was stabbed to death there. A metal fence now cuts off access to the area under the street where the homeless used to sleep at night. Last spring, it became the city’s first public area put under 24-hour video surveillance.

The Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area was given control of the underpass, and it has made efforts to make it more attractive to tourists, staging art displays and playing piped-in music on speakers.

This encroachment has been met with some resentment from the underpass’s longtime inhabitants. Last spring, for example, a busker was charged with mischief for allegedly cutting the wires on the speakers.

BIA executive director Peggy DuCharme, who launched an art exhibition in the underpass this week, expressed a desire to share the space rather than conquer it.

“We’re not trying to stop people from doing anything down here,” she told me. “We’re not here 24/7. When we’re not doing our managed programming there’s lots of times of day for other people to have access to this space, too, but certainly the cameras are a part of that to help add to the safety and minimize the vandalism.”

A dishevelled, noticeably unshowered man came up to the coffee and cookies set out for the art launch and asked, “Are these free?”

The BIA staffers cheerfully told him to help himself. That was neighbourly, and perhaps a start.

Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; ottawaletters@metronews.ca.

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