Ottawa’s notorious 99 Rideau Street McDonald’s marked the end of a debaucherous era after shutting down its 24-hour service last week. The McDonald’s, most famous for being the site of a viral brawl video where a man shields his pet raccoon from a mosh pit of fist-throwing customers, will now be open from only 6 AM to 10 PM. The decision comes after police chief Charles Bordeleau implored McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts to take action following a sexual assault that left a woman hospitalized, according the Ottawa Citizen.
Between 2014 and the end of 2018, police say over 4,000 incidents were reported at that McDonald’s, averaging 2.25 calls per day in that time. The peak came in 2017, with over 900 calls made. Police “attend this location on a daily basis to address issues including vagrancy, liquor license violations, illicit drug use and incidents of violence,” says Bordeleau in his letter to McDonald’s Canada. “In fact, even as I draft this letter, another individual is recovering from a stabbing that occurred at that address yesterday.”
The Rideau McDonald’s is legendary in Ottawa circles as a hub for violence, drug dealing, and general rowdiness, and is known locally as the “Worst McDonald’s in Canada.” Geographically, it sits in a perfect storm for bedlam, as the McDonald’s main entrance stands in front of one of the largest central bus stops in the city, while the back entrance leads people straight into the ByWard market, the city’s bar and nightlife district. As a throughway for the market and the transitway, the Rideau McDonald’s is a fast-moving, high-volume area that funnels people from all walks of life together in a crowded space. Compounding the situation, the McDonald’s is the only 24-hour fast food restaurant in the area, making it the sole place to go for a cheap, late night munch. Needles and powdery residue can be found in the bathrooms, and drugs are commonly sold in and around the maligned burger joint.
Mathieu Fleury, councillor for Rideau-Vanier ward where the McDonald’s is located in, told VICE the change is a start, but is concerned about the pathway from the back entrance, where most of the incidents occur. Fleury is also concerned about how security will be implemented. Outside, there are also alcoves where gang activity occurs, which Fleury sees as the main problem in and around the McDonald’s.
In a statement via McDonald’s Canada, franchise owner Adeel Hashmi said: “As a local business owner, I too am concerned with issues in our neighbourhood. Since last Thursday, the restaurant’s operating hours are 6 AM to 10 PM, every day. We also added security when the restaurant is open.
“I take the situation in the area very seriously and recognize the impact these changes have on my business. Affected crew were offered the chance to relocate to other restaurants in the area.”
Though the location is the subject of ridicule and in-jokes for the people of Ottawa, the Rideau McDonald’s had become an important place for the homeless community downtown. With the city’s three shelters being at or over capacity, and as homelessness is generally on the rise in Canada, fast food franchises have become an essential stop for the nation’s homeless and home insecure populations. As the last 24-hour fast food location in the market closes, it is one less place to go for people seeking a late night coffee and a roof over their head. “When you look at an issue like the McDonald’s on Rideau, it turns into an informal respite space for people who are homeless and need a warm place to go, to sit down,” says councillor Catherine McKenney, council’s liaison on housing and homelessness.
There are 7,530 homeless individuals and families in Ottawa according to the latest numbers from Homeless Hub, and the city’s three biggest shelters are all within walking distance of the McDonald’s. All are at or exceeding capacity, like Shepherd’s of Good Hope, whose occupancy has gone up nearly 20 per cent since 2012, now averaging 260 people a night. Once all the beds are full, gym mats are placed on the floor for additional people. The safe consumption site run by Shepherd’s, run in partnership with Ottawa Inner City Health, is also the only 24-hour site in the city and has largely exceeded its intended capacity. The expectation was that it would be used for 60 to 80 visits per day, but averages 200 visits, which adds up to more than 73,000 visits in a year. Its peak usage is late in the evening, which was also a dangerous time at the McDonald’s, according to a Reddit post made by a user who claims to be a former manager. It is noted in Bordeleau’s letter that among the issues of violence were vagrancy and drug use. “The situation has become untenable,” says McKenney.
Jordan McDonald had lived in Ottawa’s shelter system for seven months, and says the shelters are better than sleeping rough outdoors, “but you’re exposed to a lot of mental illness, a lot of drug addiction and there’s a lot of violence.” McDonald says staff and counselors in the shelters do their best to help, and he credits them for helping him find housing and work. But “when you’ve got that many people in a melting pot, it’s hard to control what’s gonna happen.”
He avoids the Rideau McDonald’s because of how dangerous it can get, but has relied on late night fast food joints before. “Those places are good for short term. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having to be without a place to stay for the night,” he said. The changing hours will be “really tough for people do only have a small network of places to be,” adding that the people who frequent the McDonald’s at night are likely to disperse into the streets and parks nearby.
McDonald, McKenney, and Fleury all agree that affordable housing is the key to alleviating shelter overcrowding, but McKenney notes that “it takes a lot of political will” on numerous levels of government to provide a comprehensive solution. But as capacity tightens and the length of stay increases in Ottawa’s shelters and as provincial funding for the Clarence Street safe injection has been cut, the current situation in the market is getting tougher to live in, according to McDonald. “Every year it’s worse and worse. There’s more people and more just without a place to go, and the city doesn’t have the facilities for it.”
That being said, he understands why the Rideau McDonald’s is ending its late night hours. “I’ve seen firsthand some of the stuff [the McDonald’s staff] have to deal with it. At a certain point you’ve gotta draw the line.”
McKenney says the McDonald’s is a prime example of how Ottawa’s housing and opioid crises are spilling over into public spaces.
“When we are failing to house people, and people are living in shelters or substandard rooming houses, it is going to have a spillover effect,” says McKenney. “And that is the reality. People need to be out, people need a place to congregate. We all do.” That private businesses like McDonald’s have to deal with such situations is reflective of Canada’s rising levels of homelessness, and that the province to cut services like the safe injection site is “unconscionable,” according to McKenney.
“They need outdoor space, need to socialize,” she says. “We have to provide that space."
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