The lack of police presence especially around safe injection sites and other community services has residents of Ottawa’s Sandy Hill neighbourhood voicing strong concerns.

During a recent meeting of the Ottawa Police Service Board, neighbourhood safety was top of mind for concerned residents.

Keith Nuthall, vice-president of the condominium board of Northeast Sandy Hill, urged the Ottawa Police Service to “target criminality with more vigour.”

He said that he believed the “foolish concentration” of community services, such as those provided by Oasis and Respect Rx pharmacies, has “intensified the level of human misery [they] witness” and that the situation is “spiralling out of control.”

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre website says the Oasis program provides “harm reduction-based health and social services (including HIV and Hep C treatment) for people who use drugs and experience barriers to health and recovery due to stigma, poverty, criminalization and mental illness.”

Respect Rx is a chain of pharmacies in Ottawa, that has taken part in Ottawa Public Health’s ‘safe-supply’ program, offering those with opioid addiction drugs that are not laced with fentanyl in hopes of reducing overdoses.

Nuthall says the collateral impact of these services has taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of the residents and visitors.

Anya Fraser, another Sandy Hill resident, says that “what started out as well-intentioned health-care services has devolved into a massive crime problem.”

“If Oasis turned our neighbourhood into a dumpster fire, Respect Rx poured a tankard full of gasoline on that,” she told the meeting.

Fraser says safe-injection sites in the area are only partially supervising their clients at the time of injection and “expecting neighbours to provide outpatient care for their clients while at their most vulnerable and volatile.”

Fraser said her parents ran a recovery centre for users after their son died of a heroin overdose at 18.

“They understood one thing: If you can’t get a hold on the security situation, that will undermine everything you’re trying to achieve,” she said.

“Unfortunately, certain ‘harm-reduction’ centres in Sandy Hill haven’t figured that out.” 

Calla Barnett, another Sandy Hill resident, gave multiple cases of what she described as police indifference towards residents and vulnerable people.

Barnett says she heard a story of someone calling OPS when a “confused man” wandered into the intersection at King Edward Avenue and Rideau Street. She said police arrived on the scene 15 minutes later and brought the man to the Shepherds of Good Hope without checking to see if he was high or unhoused.

Another instance, was when a former neighbour was sexually harassed on the street, while trying to access her building after losing her key. Police took two hours to respond and told the victim that “sexual harassment was not a crime.”

“These experiences of misinforming victims of crime, discouragement of reporting and refusal to help are too commonplace,” Barnett says.

Nuthall and Fraser emphasized the need for extra security measures.

Nuthall says his neighbourhood and condominium complex has had to hire security guards because of recent crimes in the area and the lack of police presence to keep residents safe.

Fraser says she and her husband have installed security cameras but people will still come up to their house in broad daylight. She says they still find human feces and needles on their front lawn.

While all concerned residents credited the police constables that are present in the area for their work, Fraser calls them “a drop in the bucket.”

Nuthall says he asks for OPS to step in as a short-time solution.

“Policing will not stop the problem; policy will. But we need to start somewhere.”

Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs said he “understands [their] comments” but added OPS is finding it difficult to increase police presence in high-risk neighbourhoods because of staff shortages and “other priority items in the city like a protest.”

Deputy Chief Paul Burnett says “this is something [OPS] is working on.” City council is dealing with an OPS request for some $13 million to hire more officers this coming year and to invest in a three-year community policing strategy.

The debate over Sandy Hill safety was accompanied by outrage over the board’s decision to limit public delegates at each meeting.

The February 2023 decision to limit public delegations to one hour per board meeting, with delegates having to submit their delegation for approval the Friday before the meeting.

Community groups, like 613-819 Black Hub and OPIRG-Carleton among others, are suing the OPS Board, alleging the new rules violate Charter rights.