Walking the Walk

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Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building. She had no formal training as a planner, and yet her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail that now seem like common sense to generations of architects, planners, politicians and activists. Source

So why walk?

Jane Jacobs believed that in order to truly know a city you needed to get out and walk it.  Following her death in 2006, a group of her friends inaugurated Jane’s Walk in Toronto to honour her ideas and legacy.  On May 5th and 6th 2012, there are over 600 walks scheduled in 85 cities around the world.

Volunteer guides design and plan the neighbourhood walks, which vary widely in subject and duration.  Ottawa’s smorgasbord of subjects include: urban foraging, a foodie tour of Hintonburg, a forest walk in Kanata, a railway history walkabout, an art tour, and the cats on Parliament Hill.  It’s challenging to pick two-days’ worth of itinerary when you’re painfully aware of what you’re not choosing.

Yesterday my daughter and I joined the tour on homelessness.  Jane Scharf, a community activist, walked us between shelters, housing and treatment facilities in downtown Ottawa.  She introduced us to several individuals who face a devastating daily array of personal problems which are mostly foreign to our experience.  We listened and observed and asked questions about the challenges of finding stable housing, the reasons people end up on the streets, and about what works in the system and what doesn’t.

Elizabeth, who met us on front of The Shepherds of Good Hope, explained that she is a recovering crack addict.  She said her biggest challenge stems from the temptations she faces where she lives.  Everyday she gets into the elevator or walks down the street and she is asked if she wants some “food” (crack).  She wants to move to an apartment in a cleaner/safer part of town where she isn’t surrounded by people with the same problems she faces.  But buildings and places, not individual people, are subsidized by the government, so she is stuck where she is with scant opportunity to move.

Elizabeth also pointed out the lack of secure storage space for the homeless.  People that live in a shelter have a place to lock up their stuff.  But if they don’t make it back to their shelter bed before closing, it gets thrown out.  If they live on the street they have nowhere to leave their stuff.  They have to keep it with them at all times, or it’s stolen.

Joe sat in the sun in his wheelchair outside the The Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre Men’s Hostel.  Before he came to live here full-time he was in the Ottawa Civic Hospital for 18 months.  He requires 24/7 supported care, including help with his most basic hygiene needs.  He said there are plenty of ‘good’ people who live on the streets and in shelters.  He said mental illness, childhood abuse, illness, drug and alcohol abuse, economic challenges, and lack of family support all have a part to play in homelessness.

Nicki G is bi-polar and described herself as a sinner before she was a saint.  A singer and guitar player, she busks under the Rideau Street pedestrian underpass and works part-time with Krackers Katering, a social enterprise of the Causeway Work Centre.  She is charismatic, engaged and was clearly pleased to have an audience and answer questions.

Stewart Poulin is known as The Artist on the Bridge.  If you’ve walked from the Market across the bridge to Parliament Hill, chances are you have passed Stewart. Peoples’ past histories are complex and aren’t easily summarized in two or three facts.  Stewart trained as a cabinet maker but eventually ceased working and ended up on the streets.  He is a self-taught artist who does pencil sketches and watercolours of local architecture and pastoral scenes and sells reproductions for $10 each.  He possesses a natural and distinctive eye for detail and has caught the attention of many passerbys, some of whom have offered help.  Unfortunately, as he has learned the hard way, sometimes those who wish to help also seek to serve their own self-interest.  Most of his precious originals have fallen into the hands of others. The few originals he keeps are damaged.  A common theme for the day emerges.  It is incredibly difficult to keep precious things safe when living a street-oriented life.

The wrap party for Jane’s Walk Ottawa is at the Lieutenant’s Pub, 361 Elgin at Waverley, from 3:00pm to 5:00pm today.

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