New Westminster is taking a compassionate approach to tackling livability issues in the downtown.
On Monday, council endorsed a series of short-term actions designed to improve the livability of the downtown. Actions to be taken include increasing cleaning and waste receptacles and providing access to a public washroom or porta-potty in the downtown.
“Homelessness, the opioid and illicit drug epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are all impacting the livability of New Westminster, in particular the downtown,” said a staff report. “Residents and businesses have corresponded with the city seeking assistance to address these challenges, including; additional waste cleanup and pickup; mental health outreach and support; addiction intervention, needle sweeps and outreach support; and new emergency shelter and housing with wrap-around supports.”
According to city staff, there has been a “significant increase” in unsheltered homelessness due to COVID, with service providers now estimating this population to be between 150 and 200.
“We recognize this is a complex and difficult issue, and not an easy solution,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “But we need to start taking steps forward to work on these multitude of issues; really framing some immediate short-term actions to help alleviate some of the issues but always keeping an eye on the challenges from the housing front.”
In recent weeks, city staff and the mayor have met with some downtown businesses to listen to their concerns.
“I think that everybody involved in our teams, the partners that we have downtown, are addressing these issues from a compassionate lens, as is our city’s vision,” said Coun. Patrick Johnstone. “Recognizing that unhoused members of our community are members of our community and have a right to be present in our community and have the right to have access to dignified services. I think when we start with those ideas, it provides an approach that I think we can all be proud of when we start to address these issues.”
City staff determined the concerns raised by community members fell into five categories: the need to improve general cleanliness and provide for 24-hour, public toilets in the downtown; homeless outreach and increased emergency shelter capacity; opioid epidemic and illicit drug response; business support and engagement; and the need to work with Fraser Health in addressing mental health issues that are contributing to increased homelessness and illicit drug use.
“I’m really happy to see us finding ways that we can hopefully make a difference very quickly,” Johnstone said. “But there are also some pretty big, more transformative changes that we are going to have to make, and those are hopefully going to come, but we don’t have time for those to be fully realized before we can take some preliminary action. I really appreciate the two-step process outlined here.”
Coun. Nadine Nakagawa suggested the city have a conversation with Fraser Health about providing information to businesses and community members about how they should respond if they see people in crisis or sleeping in doorways of local businesses.
“I think it would be very helpful to maybe provide some help in finding some tools,” she said. “I also think there is this desire in our community.”
Police on board
At its Oct. 19 meeting, the New Westminster police board received correspondence from several downtown residents who are concerned about livability in the downtown. Residents have voiced concerns about issues, such as open drug use, the increasing number of people sleeping on sidewalks and in entrances to local businesses, and a lack of response by police officers to stop people from using drugs in public.
Chief Const. Dave Jansen said the issues are multifaceted – and police shouldn’t be seen as the best solution for what’s occurring.
“Homelessness, I know we have talked about it several times – but it is not a crime,” he said. “Time and again we are asked to get involved in issues that are outside of our mandate. The unhoused need housing; they do not need police. We do play a role in this issue.”
Jansen said the NWPD dos have a role to play on the issue. He noted the police department assigned an officer to work as a vulnerable persons liaison officer, who works collaboratively with service providers, city staff and others to find real solutions to the challenges, and the NWPD is trying to find additional resources to assist the officer with this work because of the increased challenges.
Jansen said police officer have limited abilities to deal with people who are homeless. In response to concerns that police ignore requests to “move someone,” he said the NWPD must do a better job of explaining its limitations or directing those complainants to resources that are able to address those issues.
Some residents and businesses have questioned why people don’t arrest individuals who are openly using drugs.
“Some or most of those folks who are openly using drugs have an addiction. They need medical intervention, a safe supply and treatment on demand. Rarely do they need the police,” Jansen said. “Once again, we do play a role. For now, illicit drug possession is a criminal offence but the Public Prosecution Service of Canada will not prosecute simple drug possession charges. Our officers are aware of this, and it creates a very challenging situation for them if they encounter such a situation. Our focus has been and will continue to be investigating the production and trafficking of controlled substances, not possession.”
Confiscating drugs from addicts takes away the product that allows them to get through the day and manage their addiction, Jansen said.
According to Jansen, several initiatives are underway as part of a motion passed by the police board last year about deprioritizing resources away from enforcement of laws that criminalizes society’s most vulnerable people, who would be better served by a public health or community care framework.
“For now, we have to approach this issue with a compassionate and reality based lens,” he told the police board. “Again, the solution is not the police. The solution isn’t the seizure and arrest of those using. A medical-based approach is needed.”
In response to concerns about downtown livability, the police department is temporarily assigning some frontline resources to concentrate on the downtown core.
“The crime reduction unit has been assigned fulltime to the downtown until the End of October. In November they will be providing a report … detailing their observations and any recommendations that may come out of the work that they are doing now,” Jansen said. “Their goal right now is not enforcement based. It’s more interaction with the community, get to know what’s going on there, talk to residents, talk to the folks there that are unhoused and come back with some type of recommendations to the senior management team.”
In letters to the police board, some community members expressed concern about feeling unsafe in the downtown because of the increasing number of homeless people and the presence of people who may be using drugs or having mental health issues.
Jansen said a study in Vancouver showed that those vulnerable people are more likely to be a victim of crime than other community members.
“What they found is that in Vancouver you are 15 times more likely to be the victim of a crime if you have mental health issues, 23 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime if you have mental health issues and 19 times more likely to be the victim of a crime if you are suffering from homelessness,” he said. “I think what this shows is that all the issues that are at play here are not one-dimensional. They impact everyone, and to address them we all need to come together collectively.”