The sad reality of our downtown

This letter is written to raise concerns and request intervention regarding a growing concern in our community, within the business centre of Prince George.

By way of introduction, I am a local lawyer and social worker who comes from a diverse background. You should know that my past was mired by adversity - I was homeless from age 12 into my late 20s, both within small communities in northern B.C. and the downtown eastside of Vancouver. I was incarcerated for multiple years as a youth, I was gang involved and faced addictions issues as a result of trauma that I suffered in tender years due to my parents' addiction and domestic violence issues.

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I overcame all odds, and not only recovered - but I also helped others to recover. I worked for years as an addiction's counselor and front-line worker for those in need.

I know what it means (from personal experience) to face adversity living on reserves, small towns and within rough parts of the city - and all that comes with a high-risk lifestyle.

After pulling my life together against all odds and completing university - with only a Grade 7 education - I moved to Prince George and lived here for eight years and it became my home base. I was well known for my pro bono community work.

In 2014, I moved away for more professional training with a plan to return home, to Prince George. Most recently, I secured a great job with a downtown law firm. I was excited to be back home.

Since returning in January, I am deeply concerned and disappointed to see that downtown Prince George reminded me more of the downtown lower eastside of Vancouver than the familiar northern city I left just a few years ago. What now is a reality in our city is something that I had never seen in downtown Prince George before.

I started to document - by taking pictures - all the needles, crack pipes and youth from the shelter that are lined up and camped out on George Street, surrounding the needle exchange. In all my years living on the streets and as a human services worker, this is a new phenomenon.

Within the first weeks, I started hearing stories from the business community of people who feel unsafe coming to work. Women are afraid to walk to their cars because they have been verbally attacked and threatened; people's vehicles and businesses being broke into; and stabbings and assaults are not uncommon.

Every day I listen to and observe those on the streets from the homeless population, primarily because I reflect on my own experience and I can relate on a profound level. I talk to these people daily. In fact, I have old friends and 'family' (and even people who were my former associates involved in gangs) who are living on the streets here - people I care for and love.

In observing my downtown community, I have seen a growing trend of violence, property crimes and outright disregard for the people who are the thread of the community: businesses and their employees. With that said, the fact that businesspeople and community citizens need to live in fear of physical safety, and fear of damaged or stolen property, seems incredulous.

Each morning, on George Street and Third Avenue, homeless people have makeshift camps on the sidewalks. Often, they are blocking the entrance ways to businesses. There is usually piles of what appear to be stolen goods, broken drug use pipes, dirty needles, used condoms and even weapons including baseball bats, sticks, metal pipes and knives strewn about. Commonly, each morning between 5 and 8 a.m. when I arrive to work, I get berated and verbally attacked - usually young men attempting to intimidate me and call me names, unprovoked. Nearly every morning, I watch police and city workers taxed with having to essentially herd and prod large groups of people out of the area and remove truckloads of items off of the streets and sidewalks.

I am left perplexed - pondering why we have allowed our community to become so denigrated.

This is not an old problem - this is a new dynamic.

Every day, I witness people injecting drugs on the street, and smoking crack and meth on the sidewalk in front of businesses. In fact, on two occasions when leaving work, I have inadvertently breathed in clouds of crack smoke exhaled by drug users in the entry way of businesses, as I did not see them there. As a recovered drug addict, I am left to question how is it safe to let people freely smoke crack on our streets. This is a potential human rights complaint waiting to happen, because it appears there are competing rights of those who are addicted versus those who are recovering. Our city and health authority ought to be mindful of these considerations.

Even more concerning, is that often the services users at the needle exchange often bring small children and babies while accessing services. Youth who appear to be approximately 15 years old freely smoke and inject drugs on the sidewalk in front of the needle exchange. I am shocked, disappointed and appalled by the lack of response to these daily occurrences. I am left to question where the police and Ministry of Children and Families are regarding this issue. Why is it that these children are left in harms way without proper child protection observation - has MCFD given up on these particular kids?

Since returning to Prince George and working downtown, I have experienced being a victim of property crime while downtown for work on four occasions. I have had to call police on multiple occasions due to threats of violence I witnessed against community members by the street population downtown.

On multiple occasions I have witnessed brazen gang drug distribution - not drug peddling but what they call re-upping, which I have also called in and not received a call back until many hours later. These activities happen in the open on our streets with seeming impunity.

The response rates from police are very slow, taking up to days. Sometime there is no police response and thus no recourse. What are people left to do? Police and dispatch chronically ask if there are surveillance cameras in the area. There are not. Police also say they are under resourced and overburdened by the crimes, especially downtown.

As an individual community member, I am tired of being stolen from, having my vehicle broken into and facing the concern that my co-workers or I are going to be beaten or stabbed. I have been stabbed before and I can assure you it is not a pleasurable experience - nor is living in fear (physical or property related). We must remember that when a citizen intervenes in an active crime, the default mechanism of the Criminal Code is to charge the intervener who must establish their acts for intervening in a crime were justified. This essentially criminalizes those who are compelled to intervene when they witness a crime, which in my view is also problematic. As a society, we are offering more leeway to the rights of criminals than common citizens, which is improper and unbalanced.

I hear from many employees, business owners and fellow community members that they are scared when travelling to work downtown. They fear for their physical safety and they fear their property (vehicles and contents, belongings at work) are going to continuously get damaged or stolen. And the criminals have impunity, while victims of crime must cover their property losses, make repairs and pay insurance deductibles.

I also hear - and have experienced - the apathy of those who work within local institutions - the city, police, and legal system. I often hear "what do you expect, this is downtown Prince George" and "it is something we just have to live with."

As a person who has lived on both sides of the fence, what I see happening to the downtown area of Prince George is an unnecessary shame. Community members should not have to live in fear of going to work.

Historically, pawnshops and other businesses in downtown Prince George are known to pawn or purchase stolen items. They are often involved in fencing; this is a commonly known fact for pawnshops all over North America.

In the most recent incident of my vehicle being broke into, I went into several pawnshops known to sell stolen items. I first inquired whether they had brand name items for sale, the same ones stolen from me. One store owner stated he did and that he was willing to sell me the pawned item because he knew the person who pawned it would not return for it. He retrieved the item, which was in a sealed bag with a pawn slip stapled and taped to the bag.

He removed the item from the bag. I asked to see it. I found an identifiable marking that confirmed it was mine. Then he confirmed the date of the pawn slip. Then I requested the identity of the person. The store owner got mad and nervous. He said I could take the item as long as I did not call the police. It is my belief that he knew he was operating unlawfully and illegally - but I did not say so. I informed him that I would simply apply to obtain an order for him to compel him to produce the information if he did not provide me with what I wanted. He refused. I was then going to leave and then he voluntarily provided me with the knife and let me see the pawn slip. He allowed me to take a picture of the pawn slip. I requested and advised that the pawn store owner preserve the pawn slip, information and items.

I called police as soon as I left the store. I told dispatch the information, I was put on hold for nearly ten minutes. I hung up, as I had to return to work. I called back and was told to wait for the investigating officer to call me. It is now going on five days without a call - even since the theft, let alone the pawn shop that appears to be operating illegally.

I cross referenced the name on the pawn slip with social media and printed pictures of the man I believe pawned my belonging. I then talked to street people I have known for many years and confirmed the man was a known thief. I then tracked down and spoke to the man who pawned my belonging. He was already warned, by the pawnshop owner, that I would be speaking to him.

He stated he did not want police involved because the pawnshop owner gave him trouble, and he was instructed to get all of my items returned to me by the pawnshop owner. He said he would do so.

That, of course, that did not happen.

The individual admitted to being at the scene of the crime with another man. He then apologized, while citing that he was an addict and was facing difficult times. I explained to him that I too was on the street in the past, but now I am cleaned up and a lawyer - and that I do not buy his sad story because he knows he has impunity in the downtown area. Having an addiction is not an excuse for criminality, and I believe giving into the sad story game will only enable this man. I told him I will be calling the police and I demanded the return of my items and to be compensated for my losses, which I understand is unlikely.

Solutions?

Here is a list of institutions that I believe are responsible and accountable for the state of the downtown dynamic: the City of Prince George, the provincial government, the federal government, the RCMP, MCFD, Northern Health and NGOs including shelters, needle exchanges and other services.

There are solutions to these issues and enforcement of laws is a primary resource. What good are having laws if they are not enforced? Also, if the City of Prince George is having difficulties with enforcement of laws, then perhaps we need to bolster our community police force.

A full investigation of local businesses enabling/participating in criminal activity ought to be investigated, monitored closely or shut down.

Downtown Prince George could be monitored by closed circuit television video surveillance.

Downtown Vancouver has done this since at least the 1990s.

Children on the street is inappropriate and needs to be remedied immediately. As a social worker and lawyer, I will be reporting this systemic issue as it is my duty to do so under the Child, Family, Community Services Act.. Additionally, Northern Health and the

RCMP ought to be held to a higher standard when it comes to child protection issues. When children are using drugs at or around the local needle exchange and other agencies, they ought to be held accountable when not complying with CFCSA section 14 that those who fail to report child protection issues commit an offence. This needs to be enforced.

When we look at the use of harm reduction models around the world, there must be sufficient social resources available. In Canada, we are see half-measured harm reduction strategies and the result is posing more problems, not solutions. This half measure is resulting in an enabling culture of those who are addicted. It is time, as a society, we either cease politicking and adopt the full measures of harm reduction to effect real change - or we need to do something different.

Of course, there are larger questions related to government funding and sustainability of social welfare programs. It is clear what is happening is not helping, nor is it building a healthier community. Rather it is the opposite. It appears that if you are currently homeless, drug addicted and in the downtown area, that gives you social license to commit property crimes, intimidate community members, carry weapons and openly use drugs on the streets in front of passerby - including vulnerable people such as children and the elderly - with impunity, unless caught red-handed by the police, which rarely happens.

-- Daniel Gallant is a lawyer and social worker in Prince George.

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