Please don't call police if you see a homeless person, advocates urge
Volume of vagrancy calls to police has nearly doubled since pandemic began
A group that advocates on behalf of Ottawa's homeless population is asking residents to show empathy and refrain from calling police if they see homeless people wandering around their neighbourhood during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Kaite Burkholder Harris, executive director of Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, said the pandemic has pushed homeless people into areas of the city they might not otherwise go because many of the resources they rely upon, such as libraries, drop-in centres and other public places, are closed.
"Rather than being critical and in a punitive way calling or telling or snitching on people, could we think about advocating for a solution for everyone?" Burkholder Harris asked.
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Ottawa police said the volume of vagrancy calls has nearly doubled in the first seven weeks of physical distancing restrictions.
"There is a lot more people at home. They're at home because they're working from home and they're seeing things and they're making that call to us," said Acting Deputy Chief Joan McKenna.
There were 250 vagrancy calls to Ottawa police between March 16 and April 30 this year, compared to 129 calls during that same period last year. Police say the calls are coming from across the city.
McKenna said she couldn't elaborate on how the calls were resolved, including how many resulted in arrests, but said police try to provide whatever support they can in those situations.
Burkholder Harris said she's relieved there haven't been more fines or charges, which has happened in some cities.
"There is always the worry that it will become punitive at some point," she said.
She said people who may have been camping to avoid overcrowded city shelters have been asked by bylaw officers to move to a more discreet location.
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said the situation has underscored the issue with shelter capacity and the lack of affordable housing in the city.
"We need to find housing solutions immediately out of this pandemic," Fleury said. "Our shelters are outdated.... We don't have the amount of spaces in our shelters to accommodate all programs in their own [area] and respect physical distancing."
The city has set up an isolation centre for homeless people at the Routhier Community Centre on Guigues Avenue in Lowertown, and last month reopened the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre on Walkley Road as a drop-in centre for homeless men.