By Cullen Bird
“How are you?” we called out to the grey-bearded man walking along Rideau Street in the ByWard Market.
“I’m frozen!” he shouted back.
The response had every one of the four-member patrol digging through our wagon of supplies for hand warmers, snacks, and a cup of hot chocolate.
He wanted everything, especially the things that were warm. It was –15 degrees Celsius that night.
Since October, I’ve been volunteering with the Ottawa Street Medics, a grassroots-led group of volunteers who provide basic first aid and de-escalation at rallies and demonstrations. The Medics also provide support and supply drops for homeless and vulnerable people in downtown Ottawa, of whom there are many.
This is what I’ve learned after three months of volunteering with them:
There is real need on the street
People need what the Ottawa Street Medics are giving. Before the lockdown, the weekly supply drops would set out with at least two laden wagons and lots of tote bags, and return empty. The Medics have handed out hundreds of pairs of socks, hot meals, drinks, and other supplies.
“The Ottawa community is great, but there’s a drastic disconnect between what’s shared by media and the actual struggles people are facing on the street, as well as a lack of accessible services being provided by the city,” Medics volunteer TJ wrote in a text message. “That extra $13.2 million in the police budget this year could have gone a long way towards getting everyone off the street this winter.”
You can only help those who want to be helped
Most people are welcoming and grateful when it’s clear that you have something to give them. Some people might want to be left alone at that time. Privacy is another resource homeless people rarely have, which is why the Ottawa Street Medics never take photos of the people they help.
It’s really hard to take COVID-19 precautions without a home
It’s probably not hard to guess this, but it’s very hard to regularly wash your hands and keep up a supply of clean masks without running water. Even disposable face masks can be a pain — where do you put them after you’ve used them?
People on Ottawa’s streets are dehydrated year-round
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Seriously, dehydration is a real concern on Ottawa’s streets year-round. There are very few public washrooms and water fountains in the downtown area, and the pandemic and lockdown have restricted most of those. The Ottawa Street Medics hand out dozens of bottles of Gatorade and water each time they go out — they are always in high demand.
Naloxone kits are essential
From January to September 2020, there were 549 emergency department visits for opioid overdoses in Ottawa. Naloxone is a lifesaving drug used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose, buying precious time to get the victim to emergency care.
One night, on a patrol, we saw a man sitting outside the Shepherds of Good Hope just… fall over sideways. He had overdosed. It happened that fast. One of our team called 911 and the shelter’s staff responded quickly. One of our naloxone kits was one of the first that was given to him. He was conscious again when they loaded him into the van bound for the hospital.
Ottawa Street Medics founder Daniel Bailey says that the city needs a safe supply program, adequate housing, and mental health supports.
“Our overdoses were already at crisis levels and people are dying even more often than before, and suffering more ill health effects that put them at risk in general, but also puts people in potentially infectious and overcrowded ERs during the pandemic,” he wrote in a text message.
Cigarettes are… good?
Yes, cigarettes are very bad for your health. If you’re housed and smoking, you should quit. Today! But on the street, a couple of cigarettes are one of a very few comfort items folks can afford. Ottawa Street Medics volunteers often buy a few packs with their own money so they can hand out one or two cigarettes to anyone who wants them.
Once wet, blankets and clothing are useless
This winter we’ve gone from snow to slush to rain to ice to snow again. It means clothing and blankets often get wet and icy cold. Once a blanket or coat is wet, it’s practically garbage, since Ottawa’s homeless residents currently have no way to dry them. Boots, coats, sleeping bags, and backpacks are all much more useful if they have some sort of waterproofing. A plastic tarp can go a long way, as long as it’s easy to pack up and carry from place to place.
Consider volunteering, because there are a lot of other people who want to help
If you don’t know how to help the people you see on the street, or feel powerless to do so, you should seriously consider volunteering. There are many organizations in the city that can help in some way or another, and they have the knowledge on how to help effectively. Maybe you don’t have extra money to donate (I didn’t). Maybe what you have in lockdown is spare time. Or maybe a skill, or a useful connection to an organization with resources to offer. Even if you’re unsure how useful your help can be, please try. It’s the only way you’ll know.
Cullen Bird is a freelance journalist and Ottawa resident.