Homeless shelters in Ottawa’s ByWard Market area have been labelled a “cancer” by a group of local businesses, whose online petition against them has sharply divided the community.

The “Save Our Market” petition was launched last week by local business owner Patrick O’Shaughnessy, who says three homeless shelters in the area have cost local businesses “tens of millions annually” in direct and indirect costs. “The shelters, in their current configuration, must be diagnosed for what they are – a cancer which is now terminal for those residents and businesses in their vicinity,” O’Shaughnessy writes on the petition website.

O’Shaughnessy’s website says it has more than 2,600 signatures supporting “the direct removal or dramatic reduction of shelters and the ‘clients’ they support in the ByWard Market.” Another page on the site says the group is “working to provide a solution that we believe in,” and hopes to come up with that solution by March 10.

The shelters targeted by the petition are The Shepherds of Good Hope, the Salvation Army Booth Centre and the Ottawa Mission.

O’Shaughnessy says the shelters attract vagrants to the area, which leads to rampant crime, destruction of property, drug use, alcoholism, prostitution, panhandling and other issues.

“The bottom line is that the ByWard Market has supported these shelters for decades and it is long past time that they move on,” he writes online. “Not one – all.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says eliminating the shelters is not an option.

“I’m optimistic about the Market, so when people are constantly attacking the most vulnerable, I say that’s not fair game,” he told CTV Ottawa on Sunday.

Counc. Mathieu Fleury, who represents the area, said affordable housing is a better option to the current arrangement.

“It’s simply not a long-lasting solution to keep people in emergency conditions, and we’ve said that for years and years,” he told CTV Ottawa.

Management at the Shepherds of Good Home acknowledged that safety and security are important in the community.

“We will continue to work with our many community partners to help homeless people access services to enable them to obtain homes of their own with the supports they require to be successful,” the shelter told CTV News in a statement. “We are proud of the services we provide, our contributions to the community and the work that we do across the Cityo f Ottawa to help those who need us most.”

Ottawa Mission Director Peter Tilley said he was surprised and hurt to learn of the petition, particularly in light of its “cancer” claims.

“I am pained, as an Ottawa citizen, when I hear such terminology,” he said in a statement, adding that O’Shaughnessy is misrepresenting the good work that shelters do. “The Ottawa Mission has been a huge part of assisting people in need in the Market area for over a century.”

Among those who avail themselves of the areas’ shelters is John Briggs, who says he relies on what Ottawa has to offer.

“From what I hear from other people who have been across Canada a few times, Ottawa is the best place to be if you’re poor,” he said.

Briggs said he was surprised to hear that someone would describe the shelters as cancerous. “You’ve got to have a lack of humanity to say that,” he said.

Local business owner Le Hoang said the circumstances have been “OK” for her, though she’d prefer it if there weren’t so many homeless people around.

“I feel safe, but I don’t like that they hang around and make the city look not good,” she told CTV Ottawa.

One local resident said the situation in the area is “deteriorating,” and that he doesn’t like to go out in the evening because of it.

“It’s the street people that are out all the time now,” another woman said. “They’re begging and they’re sleeping on the roads and I think it’s time that we did something about that.”

However, some said they’re fine with the way things are. “I feel happy and comfortable here,” said one woman who has lived in the area for 25 years. “I think it’s really important to have a mixed neighbourhood.”

Another man said he doesn’t feel unsafe at all.

O’Shaughnessy appears to be the owner of Ottawa (Laurin) Monuments, a headstone-carving business at the corner of King Edward Avenue and York Street in Ottawa.

He declined to speak to CTV Ottawa for this story.

With files from CTV Ottawa