DISGUSTED IN VICTORIA: National Post, September 1, 2007As we approach the Olympics in Vancouver, this problem will get worse and not better. Victoria is focused entirely, as is Vancouver, in transforming downtowns from multi-socioeconomic venues into playgrounds for people with money. This problem is a direct result of poor civic planning and catering to developers pimping the "World Class City" dream. I'm sorry, but no matter how many world class communities developers build, the problem on the streets will not go away.
There is something wrong in this city. Blessed with natural good looks and a charming, historic downtown core, B.C.'s political and tourist capital is losing appeal, nonetheless. It's no secret why; local officials don't try to deny it. Junkies, panhandlers and drunks are growing in number and becoming more brazen. They are scaring people.
"The state of downtown is our number one issue," says Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe, sitting in an outdoor cafe. "It's the same for tourists and for those of us who live here. It's the fear of coming downtown."
Most Canadians probably still imagine Victoria as a quaint seaside community, tweedy, mild of climate, with a distinct British accent. It's still all of that. But there is more talk of "junkies" and "fear" and "disorder," from the Mayor on down, and, correspondingly, more worry about the city's reputation as a great place to live and to visit.
A senior provincial bureaucrat -- B.C.'s Auditor-General, no less -- is startled when addicts start injecting drugs outside his downtown office. In February, he fires off a letter to city council, demanding action, more police patrols.
"This is not the workplace I or my staff would like to have, and certainly not the image we want to have about Victoria," writes Arn van Iersel.
A U.S.-based company cancels its four-day conference in Victoria last summer, citing "countless homeless children" as a main reason.
An event organizer explains that the atmosphere downtown "was not relaxing and enjoyable but rather quite uncomfortable. It reminded me of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver rather than a world-class city."
A pair of veteran restaurateurs pulled the plug on their waterfront business this summer, blaming "human misery and degeneracy" in the downtown district. Other business people empathize. "I call the police on a regular basis once or twice a day," the manager of an adjacent furniture shop tells the Victoria Times-Colonist.
One can see why. On Thursday, a pair of injection drug users crouched in the shop's doorway. They pushed needles into their arms. Finished, they tossed their empty syringes on to the pavement, struggled to their feet and wobbled off. Watching some of this unfold from across the street was a horror-struck family of five.
One block south, in the narrow gap between a derelict building and a parking lot, there is a busy outdoor shooting gallery. Users call it "the pit" or "the cage."
It rivals anything in Vancouver's drug-riddled Downtown Eastside. Except "the cage" is a short walk from the provincial legislature.
Men and women of all description squat on dirt and rocks and inject drugs: combinations of heroin, cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, prescription tablets ground into powder and then mixed with water. Others smoke crack cocaine and crystal meth. Trash lies everywhere.
It's where I meet Codty Gray. At 19, he claims to be the youngest person here. He says he holds a "legit" job at a fast-food restaurant, but smokes crack to ease some personal trauma and anxiety. His mother died of a heroin overdose 10 years ago.
Mr. Gray claims to live on the streets; outside of work, his world is restricted to about 10 downtown city blocks that are filled with restaurants and retail stores, many of which cater mainly to tourists. The area is also inhabited by other drug users who leave trails of syringes and broken bottles. Some defecate on sidewalks. "It's getting pretty disgusting," concedes Mr. Gray. He estimates that 200 drug users frequent "the cage" on a regular basis.
He scoffs at the suggestion, promoted by some advocates, that some 70% of drug users living on the street had mental-health issues before turning to dope. "If we have mental illnesses now, it's because of drugs."
There are other notorious hangouts, among them the plaza that surrounds Victoria's City Hall. Known as Centennial Square, it seems especially popular with boozers. They loll about a grassy knoll and on benches, drinking. They make rude comments to passersby. They seem to rule the place. A security shed sits outside one of downtown Victoria's few public toilets. It's a single room, shared by men and women. For "control purposes," I'm told. A guard warns me not to linger there.
Kenneth Kelly is general manager of the Downtown Victoria Business Association; his office faces directly on to Centennial Square. Mr. Kelly is an enthusiastic civic booster and points to many improvements the city has seen in recent years. Even so, tourism, the city's lifeblood, is flat.
He acknowledges that Victoria needs to clean up its act. "There are some days when I look out at the square and I think, 'This place is a zoo,' " Mr. Kelly says. "We should not be tolerating this."
Yet it is tolerated, to some degree. "What are the options?" shrugs Mayor Lowe. Yes, he would like to see more police officers on Victoria's streets. A summer pilot program that diverted more officers to downtown foot patrol was a success. But there's no money for more hires. And the Mayor thinks it important to "strike a balance" between law and order and respect for individual rights and freedoms.
"I don't think that grabbing people and throwing them in jail to rot is much of a solution," he says. Neither, he adds, is ignoring the growing drug problem. "Letting people overdose in the streets? I don't think that's what we want, either."
Mr. Lowe has struck a task force to identify ways to deal with public disorder in the downtown core. An interim report is expected next month. He concedes it will take more months, perhaps years, to address the problem -- and, he expects, millions of dollars for more social housing, treatment and other forms of assistance to drug addicts, the mentally ill and the homeless.
He thinks Vancouver may be on the right track, offering such services as a supervised injection site where injection drug users can fix in a controlled, "safer" environment rather than in streets and alleyways. Mr. Lowe wants to open a "supervised consumption site" where users can both inject and smoke drugs.
But the Vancouver approach -- or experiment -- can't be called a success. That city's drug problem is as bad as ever. Some say it is getting worse, thanks in part to the increasing availability of user services, most of which are concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, where thousands of addicts live.
The drug scene in Victoria is not so concentrated; rather, it is spread throughout the downtown core, which is small and easily traversed on foot. There is no desire to even attempt to contain drug use in one area. "I don't want to give any one zone over to the junkies," the Mayor says.
So "the cage" on Store Street, where Mr. Gray smokes crack, is four blocks west of a busy needle exchange on Cormorant Street, which is nine blocks north of a drug haunt and former homeless encampment near Beacon Hill Park, which is a few blocks southeast of the Inner Harbour, where panhandlers roam, which is a couple of blocks from Douglas Street, where there is just about everything.
There is virtually no place free from street crime and public disorder in downtown Victoria. No one knows this any better than Inspector John Ducker, a 28-year veteran of the Victoria Police Department. He leads the Focused Enforcement Team, a group of 25 officers that patrols the downtown area. Half of the officers walk the beat at any given time.
His men and women are overworked; Victoria police officers already have one of the highest annual caseloads in the province, at about 90 each. The national average for municipal police officers is about half that.
"Twenty years ago, we were dealing with drunks hanging around the bus depot," Insp. Ducker says. "Now it's hundreds of drug users."
He does not have any proven answers. "Things have definitely become worse in just the last two years. Open, intravenous drug use is now common. It's upsetting to people who have lived here all their lives, and to people who come to visit because it's a nice place."
It is still a nice place. Just not as nice as it used to be.
How many times have we been told in our house hunt that skyrocketing property prices is good for cleaning up neighbourhoods. We've heard this about Vic West and Esquimalt. We've heard this about Langford and Colwood. Where do people who can't afford to rent or buy get pushed? Vancouver is redeveloping live-in hotels into luxury condos. Victoria is absorbing Vancouver's Downtown Eastside problems as fast as vagrants can "bum" ferry fare. World class city indeed. This city needs to be woken up from its ridiculous dream of being a two-month playground for the world's uber-elite and re-focus on developing sustainable, reasonable living and working conditions for the people who want to call it home year round.