Monday, July 16, 2007

Victoria street issues are everybody's problem to deal with
July 13, 2007

Being part of the mayor’s task force that’s trying to figure out the street problems in Victoria’s downtown has given me the opportunity to hear about the issues from every viewpoint.
I’ve been heartened to learn that virtually everybody is worried. We need to be.
But it’s also been discouraging to realize how many of us feel powerless to do anything about it.
My most recent conversation as a member of the task force steering committee was with a group of downtown landlords. They gave me one disturbing anecdote after another when asked about the problems they were experiencing.
One had recently seen a woman raped in an alley off Johnson Street, on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon. The woman was screaming as her attacker beat her with a hammer.
Police were called. The woman, who lived on the streets, refused to press charges, fearing “street justice” if word got out she’d brought charges against her attacker. End of story.
Other landlords chimed in with more disturbing tales - stories about installing yet another iron gate across yet another entry way, and of the relentless accumulation of discarded needles around their property.
Once blessedly rare events, hunting for needles and hosing down urine puddles are now just part of the daily routine for merchants on some blocks.
Prime commercial leasing space in a few critical areas is sitting empty for months - even years - because potential tenants don’t want to risk doing business amid the street problems, say the landlords.
They talked of parking lots where a car break-in is now virtually a given, and how the sight of sick, crazy people setting up camp on your building roof has grown so common that it’s lost its shock power.
And of course, they all had a story about some baffled, angry customer wondering what the hell was going on. It’s tough to sign up a new leaseholder for the empty building down the way when she has to step over used needles and a big splash of reeking urine just to view the place.
For those who don’t live, work or shop in the downtown, it probably all seems a little theoretical.
Indeed, that’s a major reason for the problem. With only a small percentage of the region’s population experiencing the misery, most people seem quite content to sit back and wait for the City of Victoria to sort things out. Their mayors and councils are more than happy to do the same.
But what we’re seeing in the downtown is the ugly face of 20-plus years of flawed decision-making at the provincial and federal level, with a little globalization and international drug trafficking thrown in. Victoria simply can’t set all of that right on its own.
We have a growing street problem in our urban centres because we unthinkingly created the conditions for an underclass. Blame a deadly combination of policy paralysis, social-welfare cuts and ideologically driven health-care “strategy,” and a world that changed too fast for some people to ever catch up.
Even if the City of Victoria could find the money to fix such massive challenges by itself, it doesn’t have the authority. Issues of health, social welfare, crime and child protection are all responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments.
Righting the many wrongs that have created the problems in the downtown won’t be easy, or fast. It will take significant amounts of planning, strategizing, innovation, political action and luck. It will require that we put aside political differences once and for all around social health, and embark on a well-considered strategy that spans at least the next decade.
A big job. But if everyone in this fractured region of ours would engage, it’s possible. Because as powerless as we tend to feel, the fact is that we have all the power we need to make a difference.
The mayor’s task force is an excellent beginning. The people sitting around that table are thinkers, movers and shakers - powerful folks in their own right. Put them in the same room with the people who know what’s happening on the front lines, and you’ve got a 360-degree view of the problems and all the knowledge you need to figure them out.
But the task force doesn’t have the money to fund whatever solutions are identified. Nor does it have the authority to override political stances - for instance, the federal government’s objection to a supervised site for street-level drug addicts to inject - or the ability to reshape provincial and federal policy.
Fortunately, we citizens have that power. Our political process is far from perfect, but it still responds well to pressure.
Money must be found. Flawed policy must be addressed. Sick people bouncing around our streets deserve to get the help they need, and landlords deserve to be spared bearing grim witness to violent rapes on otherwise sunny Saturdays in the region’s most popular shopping district.
Make it happen, people. We’re the only ones who can.


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