How Does The World See Ottawa’s ByWard Market?

Ottawa Homeless Person Byward Market 2

“Spare some change big brother, big sister? No? God bless you. Peace on earth to you.”

A few years ago I found myself at the Munich Airport in Germany with a few hours to kill. I made way to the bookstore and started flipping through the pages of The Lonely Planet. I started to wonder what they have to say about Ottawa – my neighbourhood, the ByWard Market in particular.

“It’s best to avoid Rideau Street between Sussex Drive and King Edward Avenue. In the daytime it’s cluttered with smoke-spewing buses and hoards of commuters, and in the evening it’s the preferred hangout for vagrants. The friendly ByWard Market can get  a bit of an edge in the late evening with minor drug use and prostitute traffic.”

To anyone who lives or works in the ByWard Market this should come as no surprise. Still, seeing this in print half-way across the world made an impact on me.

Back in Ottawa, I trekked through the hoards of commuters, holding my breath through the smoke-spewing buses and headed into Chapters on Rideau Street. I wanted to see what other international publications are saying about my beautiful ByWard Market.

Sadly, they all echo a similar sentiment.

Frommer’s writes:

“In recent years the number of homeless people and panhandlers has increased,” and warns “two specific places to avoid are the pedestrian underpass on the South side of Confederation Square just West of the Rideau Centre and the main East-West ByWard Market streets between Dalhousie and King Edward.”

It’s not easy for a tourist to avoid Rideau Street between Sussex and King Edward… in fact, it’s pretty much impossible. And yet the two most popular travel guides in the world find it important to warn those visiting Ottawa to steer clear. It seems our underbelly has earned quite the reputation. But does the ByWard Market deserve these scathing reviews?

In my opinion yes.

Here is why:

  • Does anybody feel comfortable outside of McDonalds on Rideau Street? This fall my girlfriend was accosted by an army of hoodlums while leaving McDonalds at 11pm on a Wednesday. They formed a circle around her, grabbed her bag and began to push her to the ground before a couple of bystanders raised their voices in her defence.
  • If you’re out past 1am on a Friday or Saturday night you will surely be witness to a fight. 3 weeks ago some colleagues and I went to Zac’s diner after a work party. It was around 2am. Shortly after we sat down at a booth, two groups of people next to us began to argue. A wild brawl quickly gave way, punches flying, the security guard got beat up (why does a local diner need a security guard anyway!?), and a metal coat rack was ripped off its bracket. Police had to come and break it up. What really pisses me off is that our waitress said that this happens literally all the time! Hence, why they need a security guard.
  • Three months ago one of my colleagues was approached by a prostitute at 8am on a work day.
  • I work in an office building right in the heart of the ByWard Market. We’ve had multiple robberies during business hours, all within the last year. People come up the elevator, grab the petty cash and run.
  • For the past month or so I have taken note of how many times I’m asked to spare some change on my walk to and from work. My walk to work is roughly 1km and takes 10 minutes depending on how long the light at King Edward takes. Here’s my usual route, although often I hang a left on George past The Salvation Army and cut through the parking lot:

Ottawa Byward Market Global Reputation

… during that 10 minute walk I’m approached on average  by 3-5 different people asking for change. Rain, snow, or shine, headphones in and listening to music or not, on the phone talking with a friend or not, I’m asked to spare some change. 

There are 5 shelters in the ByWard market that offer shelter, clothes, hot food, and social support if needed – so really, what’s the money for? I can’t count the amount of times I’ve seen the same people who ask me for change drinking a bottle of Sherry in the middle of the day.

Do I feel guilty for not giving money to panhandlers? Absolutely not.

Part of the reason I don’t feel guilty is because I write a cheque for the Ottawa Mission every year. I have a great deal of respect for selfless organizations who help those in need. This one in particular  serves 1,200+ meals every day to anyone who is hungry and has 235 beds for people who can’t afford to pay rent. When I give my money to an organization like that, I feel confident that I’m contributing to a solution, not simply feeding someone’s addiction. When I drop a loonie in a hat, well… I’ve got a couple guesses where that money is going. 

But I’m getting off track.

What the hell is going on here ByWard Market? Robberies, wild brawls inside of restaurants, 8am hookers, excessive amounts of panhandling… and I’m sure anyone who is reading this will have their own stories. It all makes me sick. We need to work to resolving these problems. We should NOT go on like this. 

Regrettably I don’t have any answers. This is merely a rant after reading some not-so-surprising nasty reviews in some very big and well-respected publications.

If anyone reads this, I’m curious to know what you think? Do you agree that Ottawa’s ByWard Market has a problem? If so – what are some possible solutions? More police? More low-income housing? Perhaps relocate some of the homeless shelters? 

Join the discussion here.

**Note the man in the picture above in no way represents my thoughts expressed in this article. Although he does ask me for money almost every day, I’ve never seen him drinking on the street or harassing anyone. I just Googled “Ottawa Homeless” and picked an image at random.