Reviving the ByWard Market: Businesses can help themselves by helping others, advocates say

byward market

Every morning, the team at MARANT Construction comes face to face with Ottawa’s homeless problem. 

“It’s all empty storefronts, lack of traffic and homelessness,” said Jennifer Cross, MARANT’s business development manager. “We’re experiencing it firsthand because we’re there and it’s affecting our team very much. Our crews in the morning run into people doing drugs and they are walking over homeless people to get to the site.”

Cross says she has seen homelessness rise and traffic decrease in the ByWard Market since the pandemic. MARANT does much of its work in the well-known tourist area, which yesterday saw the city’s fourth homicide of the year.

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MARANT is on the frontlines of what David Gourlay, vice-president of Shepherds of Good Hope, calls the “collective responsibility” that Ottawa residents have to fight for solutions to homelessness. 

Shepherds of Good Hope builds supportive housing and provides resources for mental health and addictions. It’s always looking to partner with businesses, Gourlay says.

“As a homelessness organization, we’re very invested in our business community and supporting local. We want to be part of the solution and work with local businesses, BIAs and organizations that operate in the ByWard Market,” he told OBJ. “We’re here to be part of the solution and sit down and have conversations and see where those solutions are.”

If he had his way, Gourlay says, he’d introduce every business owner operating in the Market to each other and initiate roundtable discussions to find solutions to the ongoing challenges facing the neighbourhood.

According to Dave Donaldson, chair of Shepherds of Good Hope and managing partner of Ottawa-based Bo’ness Management Consulting, investing in the Market will have a major economic impact on the city.

“Businesses need to engage with services working with the homeless to collectively work on the issue,” he said.

The City of Ottawa declared a homelessness emergency in 2020. According to data from the Ottawa Mission, the number of people living houseless has doubled since then. In an interview with OBJ, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said it’s up to all Ottawa residents to help make the ByWard Market’s revival a reality. 

Cross agrees, saying that revitalizing the Market and surrounding areas is a city-wide responsibility, whether Ottawans live in Barrhaven or Overbrook. 

“We’re in a place right now where we’re only thinking about ourselves, in a ‘me’ place instead of ‘we.’ It shifted during the pandemic when we moved out of the downtown and there’s less of a community now post-COVID because we were pushed into isolation,” Cross said. 

“It’s very difficult to hear people say they don’t care about what’s happening in the Market,” she continued. “They don’t understand the economic impact of the downtown in the first place. People are avoiding the area; there’s no question that we hear people say they don’t feel safe in the area anymore because of the homelessness and because there’s a feeling of it being hollowed out.”

Cross and her team want to be part of the solution. MARANT supports The Ottawa Mission and is participating in the Coldest Night of the Year on Feb. 25. It’s on track to exceed its fundraising target of $4,000. MARANT made its own donation of $4,000 with the goal of feeding 1,150 people through the Mission’s programs. 

Helping those experiencing homelessness has become part of the MARANT work culture, says Cross. “We just felt as a team that if there was something we could do in the community where we work, we would want to make a difference.”

Building a collective responsibility and destigmatizing the stereotypes surrounding homelessness are priorities for Shepherds of Good Hope, Gourlay says, adding that efforts like MARANT’s contribute on a massive scale.

“The work that MARANT does demonstrates strong corporate social responsibility and helps them understand homelessness from the Mission’s standpoint and that’s a great example of the collective responsibility we need to build,” he said. “We need to support organizations that are on the frontlines 24/7, we don’t stop because of a pandemic. We don’t close our doors.

“It’s not enough to just complain about it and say the homeless people are limiting my ability to be a successful business,” said Gourlay. “That isn’t a productive way to approach a partnership. The productive way will be to find solutions.”

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