Sidney’s perceived safety, plentiful green space and “lucrative” panhandling are among the reasons said to attract a growing growing number of individuals with no fixed address to the community, the public heard last week.
Staff-Sgt. Wayne Conley of Sidney/North Saanich RCMP detachment cited these reasons as he updated Sidney councillors about new crime figures showing an overall increase of 16 per cent of reported crime during the first three months of 2020 compared to the same period last year.
“Reasons we are seeing an increase in police contacts with no fixed address persons, we think as police, we frequently hear about Sidney is a safer place,” he said. “We know about the free transit, there is more green space out in this area of the Peninsula, Sidney is known to be lucrative for panhandling and we have the close proximity to the ferries.”
Conley told councillors earlier that local police have had contact with 38 individuals of no fixed address with its jurisdictional area since March 1, with 53 per cent of those individuals from the Greater Victoria area.
Sidney itself has about 10 to 15 permanent individuals with no fixed address, he added.
The question of homelessness and its impact on the community has been gaining importance in recent months and Conley’s presentation linked several categories of crime to homeless individuals.
Conely said 46 per cent of cause-disturbance files involve no fixed address person and eight out of 36 mental health calls involved persons with no fixed address.
By way of background, the number of cause-disturbance file doubled from 28 in the first quarter of 2020 from the same period last year and the spike in cause-disturbance files contributed to a 39 per cent increase in other criminal code offences during the first quarter of 2020. Only crimes against persons, up 107 per cent, rose faster.
Conley also addressed the rising number of assaults in the community.
“Of those assaults that we had between Jan. 1 and March 31, five of those were domestic related and four of those involved persons with no fixed address,” he said. “I think it’s important to address that although assaults are up compared to the same period last year in 2019, they are not compared to the previous four years.” This context is important, he added. “But we are seeing a few more assaults involving no-fixed-address persons.”
If Conley’s presentation referenced abstract statistics, he also acknowledged what observers have been seeing during recent months: the growing visible presence of homeless individuals.
While municipal bylaw enforcement have been patrolling Sidney’s local parks and downtown in early morning hours, police have been conducting late night and mid-afternoon patrols, he said.
“An increased number of individuals have been encountered [staying overnight] in park locations such as Iroquois [Park], Tulista [Park], the library, Beacon Park, and near Mary Winspear,” he said.
Overall, Conley described the figures for the first three months as “a huge fluctuation” in figures.
“For example, the number of mental health calls was way up by 80 per cent,” he said. “We saw an increase in assaults as well. Theft and shoplifting calls were way up. Cause-disturbance calls were double from what they were the previous year. We saw an increase in traffic accidents as well.”
This said, Conley said Sidney remains a safe community.
A comparative survey of other Vancouver Island communities of comparable size shows 20 per cent of all calls for service involve criminal code offences — the lowest ratio compared to Powell River (40 per cent), Ladysmith (36 per cent) and Oceanside (31 per cent).
“But I’m most concerned about what happens in Sidney from year to year and where we are going with that,” he said.
On the positive side of the ledger, commercial break-and-enters are down, with Conley pointing to Sidney’s built environment as a crime-deterring factor.
Sidney’ concentrated downtown with its limited number of alleys and dark spaces makes it easier for police to patrol and show its presence, he said. The high number of residents in Sidney’s core also gives police additional eyes and ears on the ground, he added.
Conley also touched on the effects of COVID-19 on local police work.
Conley said the last six weeks witnessed “enormous” procedural changes as the detachment responded to the pandemic.
They include among others the development of pandemic-specific plans to maintain policing services and the acquisition of essential personal protection devices, he said.
Police also invested considerable work into developing new procedures for investigations, collecting statements and interviews, finger-printing, and prisoner handling.
The detachment itself has remained closed to the public since March 23 with community and volunteer policing programs postponed for the foreseeable future.
When asked later whether he has seen an increase in domestic violence because of COVID-19, Conley could not give specific figures, but suggested that any increase would not be significant.
”I would guess that we are seeing a slight increase, but not a significant one,” he said.
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