New respite centre for Ottawa's homeless to 'make a big difference'

The COVID-19 pandemic is making a bad situation worse for many of Ottawa's homeless residents since most of the public facilities with bathrooms and showers have closed their doors.   

Washrooms, showers now open at the McNabb Arena

Randy says he'll be making use of the McNabb Arena during the COVID-19 pandemic, which opened April 24 and will offer Ottawa's homeless residents a safe space to use the washroom and take a shower. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic is making a bad situation worse for many of Ottawa's homeless residents, since most of the public facilities with bathrooms and showers have closed their doors.   

Randy lives in a tent with his three dogs and hasn't had access to services for several weeks.

"My appearance … I'm sorry for not being on camera, but I look like shit," he told CBC News. "My hands are getting chappy from using so much hand sanitizer. I'm starting to get sores on my body from being outside because I'm not showering properly." 

As of Friday, however, Randy and others in similar situations now have at least one place to use the washroom and have a shower: the McNabb Arena.

It will be open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. as a place for homeless people to get a reprieve from the streets.

'It's devastating'

CBC News agreed to not identify the homeless people interviewed for this story, as they feared for their safety on the streets and wanted to retain privacy over their health issues.

Before the pandemic hit, some shelters were housing 10 to 12 people to a room. With social distancing measures, however, they've tried to reduce that number.

Many social programs those residents depend on have also been cut down. 

"It's rough," Randy said."It's devastating. For not just me, but for a lot of people that straight up depend on these places, these resources."

Glen says the closure of public washrooms has been one of the most difficult things to deal with during the panedmic. (Omar Dabaghi-Pachecho/CBC)

'Nowhere else to go'

Glen, who's called Kenny Rogers because he bears a resemblance to the country singer, said it's the lack of public washrooms that's hit him hardest. 

"Oh, it's terrible, because basically sometimes you have to go on the street," he said. "There's nowhere else to go."

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who'd been advocating for a respite centre in the ward, said the problem goes beyond just finding access to washrooms, however.

Ottawa community centre now open to support homeless residents during pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 2:02
The McNabb Community Centre opened Friday for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents to access showers and washrooms. Reporter Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco spoke to some of those residents. The CBC agreed to keep their identities confidential.

McKenney has been hearing of many more residents sleeping outside these days to avoid increasingly difficult conditions in shelters. 

"I've heard of people setting up tents in different spots, trying to stay safe," McKenney said. "Trying to stay out of the way."

More facilities could open

That's been difficult, given the new restrictions around city parks and the heavy fines for being found loitering in one.

Opening McNabb and eventually other city facilities in Vanier and the ByWard Market will make a dramatic difference, the councillor said.

It will boost a lot of people's morale.- Randy

"I don't know what we'd do without them right now," McKenney said. "This is such a relief for a population that really has nothing else right now and nowhere to go during the day." 

McKenney said the hope is that services at the McNabb site will eventually be expanded to provide food and to help fight the growing sense of loneliness.

For Glen, that's one of the things that's had the most impact on his life the past for weeks.

"You feel like you're on your own, eh," he said. "The isolation, that's what I mean. It's very hard."

As for Randy, he said finally being able to feel clean again will give a big boost to his mental health.

"Having access to their facilities ... I'm happy," he said. "That's going to make a big difference on me and a lot of other people. It will boost a lot of people's morale."

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