Freiheit: 216 Murray project will help the byward market too

Opinion piece published in Ottawa Citizen – Monday, July 6, 2021

Ottawa is full of generous, compassionate people. At Shepherds of Good Hope, we are fortunate to have a passionate community of thousands of donors, volunteers and supporters who give money, food, time and more to support our work.

But right now, there are some tensions to talk through.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the toxic drug supply, and the housing crisis have all hit our community hard. As COVID forced many closures and service restrictions, homelessness in Ottawa’s Byward Market became much more visible.

As I walk to and from work at our main building on Murray Street, I talk with our neighbours and it is clear that they are concerned and looking for solutions. They are concerned about things like open drug use and discarded needles, people experiencing mental health crises, trespassing and theft. They worry about the safety of their children and the viability of their businesses.

They aren’t indifferent to the needs of those experiencing homelessness. They are sympathetic to their traumas and understand the link to addiction. They just want to understand what can be done to address these issues and ease some of their anxieties.

This is a challenge for me as I’m torn between my empathy for people experiencing homelessness and our neighbours’ concerns. I want to make the best decisions for our community.

A lot of these discussions have taken place around our new multipurpose building at 216 Murray, next door to our shelter building, which will house 48 people in 2022. We received funding for this project as part of the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative.

Ottawa needs this. Building this facility will help ease the pressures in the Byward Market and not building it means these pressures will worsen.

It’s smart to offer supportive housing in different parts of our city. Shepherds is doing this in Kanata, Carlington, Lowertown and Rideau-Rockcliffe. At the same time, it is inevitable that our downtown neighbourhoods will continue to draw people in need of support, as they do all over the world. And more capacity is needed to help them, in a smart and sustainable way.

One thing that concerns me a great deal is the perception that social problems exist in the Byward Market because social service agencies are located here, and that somehow if we moved away, so would the problems.

Shepherds of Good Hope and organizations like ours don’t create homelessness. We are trying to help reduce it, by meeting people where they are without judgment and moving them into permanent homes.

Shepherds doesn’t create addictions, but we are on the front lines of helping people combat their substance use disorders and prevent them from harming themselves or others.

Shepherds doesn’t create trauma, but we are one of a handful of agencies that know how to help someone who is masking trauma with substance use.

People may wish that those who use substances and who don’t have homes wouldn’t congregate in the Byward Market. Wishing won’t make that come true. A new supportive housing facility at 216 Murray, with a community kitchen and a drop-in centre where they feel welcome will help a lot. When people have a home of their own, their lives are truly transformed.

I hope the residents of Ottawa will embrace this new project. It’s built on our nearly 40 years of expertise in creating community solutions. Shepherds can’t solve everything, but we are passionately committed to reducing and ending chronic homelessness. If we don’t build this new facility to help people, the worries of our neighbours in the Byward Market will only grow.

Deirdre Freiheit is the President and CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope