A survey conducted by Leger has documented the decline of the “downtown core” with pandemic restrictions and closures only accelerating a transformation that was already in motion.
For Amy Cole, who manages a shop slightly out of the downtown core, the issues found in the Leger survey are all too real.
The most common factors identified in the study include mental health challenges, homelessness, crime and drug addiction.
Cole said she has seen it all and her requests for solutions have resulted in little action.
“For the past four years, along with many nearby business owners, we’ve been giving detailed feedback directly to Victoria city council in a wide variety of ways, with zero observable results,” Cole said. “We’re supportive of harm reduction and outreach, but unfortunately with regards to the three (organizations) located directly across from us, SOLID, Substance and the AVI/SAFER facility, we’ve seen completely inadequate safety measures, security, or controls in place to protect their neighbouring businesses, our customers and local residents. They seem to turn a blind eye to the daily situation that’s been created right outside their doors.”
Fred Cameron, the director of programming at SOLID, said his organization is listening, citing a block ambassador who walks the street to make sure things stay calm. He adds there is a space in their location where people can hang out for a reprieve from street life, but reiterates that homelessness is a large part of Victoria and society can’t continue to push people who are unhoused out of the eye of society.
“We invite people from the street community into our space,” Cameron said. “We’re going to see a little bit of chaos, but at the same time, I think where we differ from much of the population is when people are offended by the very existence of homeless people. We don’t support property crime or violence - that’s not something that we look the other way on or encourage our memberships to take part in.”
According to SOLID’S proposal to renew their temporary-use permit, which allows them to distribute cannabis as a harm-reduction service at low or no cost, their presence on Cook Street does increase foot traffic and visibility of people who use their services.
Those who do are largely people experiencing homelessness and addiction, and the problems that stem from having a community with a high number of transient and unhoused people have an impact on large swaths of the public, but Cameron said SOLID aims to have a hand in the solution, not contribute to the problem. SOLID works together with Substance UVic, to offer various education and support services for drug-related harm reduction, as well as a research-based cannabis substitution program that consults the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
Substance UVic is part of the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project, which offers tests for drugs that may contain unexpected compounds. According to the annual project report for 2022, during the month of July, Substance checked 483 drugs and found that while most contained the expected compound, many were contaminated. Drugs laced with fentanyl are contributing to the toxic drug crisis in North America and Substance found that 106 drugs contained the deadly opioid in July alone. These numbers show both the importance of checking drugs, as well as how many people the check-point brings Cook Street.
Lastly, SAFER Victoria is a medical clinic that is available only to registered participants, according to Jack LeMaistre, the program manager.
“We are a confidential medical clinic for SAFER participants only, as one of the programs run by AVI Health and Community Services,” they said. “It is not a public supervised consumption site, or a publicly accessible medical clinic.”
Katrina Jensen, the executive director for AVI Health, said there are currently 100 participants enrolled with only half of them coming into the clinic. As a result of their services, Jensen said participants report a better quality of life, fewer interactions with the criminal justice system and overall better health.
“There is just an overwhelming amount of homelessness in the community at this time, so this is a systemic problem, not a problem that originates or is perpetuated by SOLID,” Cameron said. “We have a person on the block who is walking to make sure that we are maintaining the calm, we bring people into the back and we do remind members that we have neighbours and we’re a part of the community and ask that they keep moving if they’re gathering out in front.”
Cole said the challenges Cook Street faces have roots in the gaps that exist between social services, non-profits and government policies that fail to provide adequate support.
“While helping a friend navigate homelessness and the shelter system this year, we’ve observed first-hand the overwhelming challenges he’s faced,” Cole said. “The most glaring thing has been the huge disconnect between the various services, facilities and government ministries. The system is extremely broken, and it’s a situation where the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing.”
Stewart Logan, who owns Logan’s Liquor store has also seen challenges, facing theft and safety incidents that disrupt vehicle and foot traffic.
“Everyone’s in a rush to be seen as trying to help,” he said. “It draws a lot of people who need help - but people who take advantage too. We end up with break-ins but for a while we had to stop out-right theft in the store. You can call the police, but they are very busy in other areas. They want to help but they’re under-resourced and stretched.”
For both Logan and Cole, who are determined to stay put, moving out isn’t an option they want to consider.
“We opened our doors on Cook Street 28 years ago, have always appreciated our North Park location and neighbours, and have no desire to move our business,” Cole said. “What we want is immediate action on the part of the City of Victoria and the province, because this serious issue in our city’s downtown has gone unaddressed for far too long.”