Is downtown Victoria safe?
In a word; yes. However, there has been a significant amount of attention over the last several months regarding street-level activity throughout downtown. This leads to comments such as, “I never go downtown anymore” or “I would never let my teenager go downtown.” Perception is reality, and I hope we can have honest conversations about the reality.
As with any downtown, we have issues in Victoria’s core. The congregation of our marginalized population accessing services downtown has an impact. Visually, it can make an area appear unwelcoming. The increase in theft and break-ins among underground parkades and retail businesses is concerning, as is the increased open drug use and after-effects witnessed in various blocks and public spaces.
These issues impact public perception, employee safety, and a business owner’s ability to make a living. Identifying impacts is not about making people wrong or criminalizing addiction, mental health or homelessness. It is about asking: “Do we as an entire community think the status quo is acceptable?”
In other cities, people avoid speaking up or suggesting solutions for fear of being labelled as greedy, privileged, or lacking in humanity. The result has been parts of neighbourhoods turning into encampments where drugs and crime run unabated. Seattle and San Francisco in the U.S., Abbotsford and Maple Ridge on the mainland, and Nanaimo just to our north are experiencing this right now. Fortunately, there are opportunities to ensure that Victoria does not follow the same trajectory.
First, let’s find common ground on behaviours we agree are unacceptable and seek accountability and enforcement of those behaviours. This includes properly funding the Victoria Police Department and City of Victoria bylaw services to support businesses and residents with the issues they face.
Second, we need to demand the provincial government fund the necessary support services. The province stepped up with housing funding, but the success of that housing relies on the availability of wrap-around services to those in need.
Third, we need to decentralize services so those currently accessing support downtown can receive the help they need closer to home. Reducing the congregation of people at any one facility will improve both the perception of safety downtown and the experience of those using and providing the services.
Finally, we need to examine whether our community-based approach to mental health and addictions is meeting the needs of all affected. The mayor of Nanaimo, where these issues are significant, recently openly questioned whether congregate care might not be better for those with the most severe needs. It takes leadership to ask that question and it will take courage to answer it. But for our community members suffering on our streets, it may be unforgivable if we don’t try.
Jeff Bray is the executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association