Homeless continue to fight for Rideau underpass

The Rideau Street underpass, formerly a popular sleeping and gathering spot for some of Ottawa’s homeless, may soon be practically unrecognizable.

The city’s community and protective services committee has approved a one-year pilot project to be managed by the Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area that will turn the now desolate area into a venue for such activities as performance and visual art and live music.

Currently, the underpass is partially fenced in after city council last year approved a wrought-iron fence and increased lighting to prevent the homeless from sleeping in the underpass. Safety concerns arose in 2006 after a young homeless man was stabbed to death in the sleeping area, prompting the controversial installation of the fence.

Andrew Nellis, head of the Ottawa Panhandlers Union, is currently facing jail time for attempting to remove a lock from the fence. He claims he was only restoring public property to the public and planned on copying the key for the new lock for both the city and the police.

“We’re not saying the homeless have a right to the underpass,” Nellis said in an interview. “We’re saying the public has a right to the underpass.”

Nellis and the Panhandlers Union have already launched a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the city for what they claim is the city denying access to public property. Recent recommendations for the pilot project came from the task force on homelessness, comprised of city staff and Councilor Diane Holmes, as well other members of the community; and have only increased the tension between city officials and the homeless.

Under the terms of the pilot project, the underpass will be turned into an artisan corner where homeless people will be able to sell their arts and crafts as well as engage in live performances. The current fence will also be painted and decorated to help create a more welcoming appeal, says Peggy DuCharme, executive director of the Rideau BIA.

“We want to add animation and programming to create a positive impression rather than having people feeling threatened by people loitering,” she says. “We are trying to accommodate their [the homeless] access to the space while making sure it’s safe.”

DuCharme acknowledges that BIA staff may not be adequately trained for various situations that arise when dealing with the homeless, such as alcohol and drug addiction, which is why the project includes support from shelters and other homeless initiatives in what she calls a “hand up not a hand out approach.” 

“We’re going to work with social service agencies to help these people develop skills and reintegrate into the workplace with jobs they can actually do,” says DuCharme.

Additionally, another aspect of the project will partner homeless people with social services like churches that will offer their property as vending grounds for the homeless to sell their homemade jewelry, crafts, and newspapers.

But Nellis says the social work approach of the pilot project will be nothing but detrimental to the homeless community.

“What they [the homeless] need is empowerment,” he says. “They want the ability to set up their own enterprises. They’re all capable of doing something whether it’s selling newspapers or making crafts. They don’t need governments, churches and the BIA holding their hand.”

The project proposal received little opposition from members of the committee meeting on May 15. Holmes says she is excited to get things moving after participating in the homelessness task force.

“This is only a very small piece of the task force,” she says. “But I’m looking forward to the pilot project, seeing if it works, and then expanding if it is successful.”

Holmes added that it’s important to allocate a piece of the city’s budget to the aspect of the project that will help people within the community to complete job training and find employment.

But for Nellis, the decision to implement the pilot project is just another product of people who don’t truly care about the well-being of the homeless.

“It’s easy for them after a year to say ‘oh well this didn’t work’ and move on,” he says. “They don’t want vendors on the street. They’ve been trying for 10 or 15 years to get us off the streets.”

DuCharme says the reaction from the homeless to the pilot project and the BIA management role hasn’t been completely negative and perhaps those who are opposed to it simply “don’t want the help.”

“They don’t speak for everyone,” she said. “We hear things that are much more balanced, open, and receptive.”

Only time will tell whether or not the year long pilot project will be a success. But in the meantime, the fence that encloses part of the Rideau underpass isn’t going anywhere, despite the attempts to make the area more colourful, welcoming, and safe with a management system and various art projects.

Even potential jail time isn’t deterring Nellis from continuing his the fight to regain the underpass.

“That area is where the poor people gather. That’s their community,” he says. “If you don’t want to see poor people go live in Disneyland.”