In Ottawa’s bustling ByWard Market, tourists and residents from across the city take selfies, indulge in diverse cuisine, buy souvenirs and enjoy drinks on patios as they explore the historic neighbourhood just east of downtown.
Near the market stalls displaying fresh vegetables and vendors selling handmade goods are signs of distress, such as people with ripped clothing laying on the ground near downtown shelters, or visibly using drugs.
Activity has resumed in earnest in the historic neighbourhood after the COVID-19 pandemic emptied the streets of the usual traffic and forced some businesses shut. But the layered problems that have long earned the market a reputation for being unsafe have not abated, and a 2021 police report said it has the highest rate of violent crime and second-highest total crime in the city.
Amid concerns about security, the City of Ottawa has embarked on a revitalization plan that it hopes will finally turn things around. A newly appointed municipal corporation has been tasked with improving security in the area, and Mayor Mark Sutcliffe insists things are getting better.
Sylvie Bigras has lived in Lowertown, a residential area that extends to the north and west of the market, for 41 years.
“There have been some serious changes in the last decades,” said Bigras, who is president of the Lowertown Community Association.
“I’m really well entrenched in the community, and I’ve been able to keenly observe the changes over the years, and the one thing I’ve noticed — and actually residents and even business owners support this fact — is that safety and security has become even more of an issue than ever.”
She said she has heard concerns from realtors whose clients refuse to buy or rent in the area and from residents whose dogs have died after consuming toxic substances on the ground, and who’ve said things like: “My five-year-old daughter can’t play in the front yard because there’s needles left there.”
That’s “a big wake-up call,” said Bigras.
The city approved a $129 million revitalization plan in 2021, and the issue was heavily debated during last fall’s municipal election.
Earlier this month, Ottawa announced a new authority would replace the local BIA. The ByWard Market District Authority was given a mandate to “improve community safety and well-being,” among other tasks.
As the new district authority assumes responsibility, it will receive $200,000 in one-time funding towards redesigning streets and public spaces in the market.
A new neighbourhood operations centre for the market is also in the works. It would centralize police, community resource officers and social programs.
Sutcliffe proposed the hub during his mayoral campaign. He said last week he has been working with the Ottawa Police Service on “moving that forward.” It would come out of the police budget, he said, “on whatever timetable that they feel is achievable in the months ahead.”
Bigras said she “100 per cent” supports the plan, but suggested it is only a short-term solution.
Over time, she said, the area has become congested with all those in need of help, because the bulk of the city’s social services and emergency housing are in one concentrated area.
Bigras gave the example of a 16-year-old boy who lived about an hour away from downtown and was told during a mental health crisis that the nearest support available to him was at the Salvation Army’s Ottawa Booth Centre on George Street in the market.
When he got there, Bigras said, he was turned away because the program was full.
She said the city should focus on spreading out its social services.
“Every single ward has to have emergency housing,” said Bigras “Then you’re not going to be sending everyone into one small space that has become violent and unsafe.”
Another nearby shelter just southeast of the market, The Ottawa Mission, has been over capacity for several years running, said its CEO Peter Tilley.
“We’re putting mats down in the chapel room floor. We’re seeing people lining up waiting to get a bed,” he said.
Tilley agreed that spreading emergency housing across the city would help control overflow in the downtown shelters.
But those who are living in poverty, who struggle with mental illness and drug use, are not responsible for the overall safety concerns in the market, he said.
There is also the presence of gangs and violent criminals, and vulnerable people are often their targets.
“They’re open to predators, to drug dealers, to all sorts of influences that go with encampments and when you’re sleeping on the streets,” said Tilley.
He said increased police presence and community resources of the kind the city is discussing could help deter and de-escalate crime.
“Those officers are going to be trained in intervention. They’re going to be trained to deal with people in distress and provide assistance. Even if things are escalating, they’ll be there to intervene,” he said.
Brian Lahey, the secretary for a local real-estate development company, said that improving public safety would help draw business back into the area.
“Shoplifting and aggressive panhandling and having vagrants sleeping on the sidewalk is destroying the daytime activity,” Lahey, who works for the Priorities Group, said during a city council committee hearing earlier this month.
“Nighttime security is also an issue. Gangs and shootings must stop.”
Police recorded the equivalent of more than 11,000 crimes per 100,000 people in the Rideau-Vanier ward that includes the market in 2021, compared to rates lower than 4,500 in two adjacent wards. The only ward that features a higher overall crime rate is neighbouring Somerset, which includes Ottawa’s downtown.
Trends reports show that the rate of crime is about the same as it was almost a decade earlier. And violent crime in the ward has also remained consistent, at about 2,000 instances per 100,000 people in both 2012 and 2021.
Still, Sutcliffe said at a recent news conference that he is encouraged by the current status of the market.
“I think by and large things have been getting better,” he said last week. “I’ve heard from a number of business owners who are feeling optimistic. They feel like more people are coming to the ByWard Market. They feel good about that.”
But he said he understands the concerns.
“They are still concerned about safety for their employees and customers, and obviously the residents and tourists who are visiting as well,” said Sutcliffe.
Bigras said she is more hopeful than ever that Ottawa’s current council, mayor and Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stephanie Plante want to address the community’s concerns.
She said the city has adopted her residents’ association’s strategic plan, called “24 in 24” — meaning there should be social services across all 24 wards in Ottawa.
And though the plan tackling public safety challenges in the neighbourhood is still developing, it is now underway.
“This is the first time I’ve seen in decades of living in Lowertown where the city is actually listening, caring, acknowledging and moving,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Liam Fox, The Canadian Press