Business owners trying to reopen in the downtown core are coming into conflict with homeless people who have taken shelter in parks, plazas and storefronts during the public health emergency.
“Things have gone from good, to bad, to downright ugly,” said Stephen Regan, executive director of the West End Business Improvement Association. “It’s a perfect storm with businesses that are closed that have awnings and alcoves — those tend to be good places to hunker down for the evening or even a full day or a week.”
The West End has always had its share of homeless people because it is relatively busy and perceived to be safer by people who sleep outdoors.
“It’s a compassionate and tolerant neighbourhood, where they panhandle and people give them food,” said Regan.
Salon owner Victoria Jazic arrived at her shop recently to find four people camped in her entryway smoking meth and using heroin.
“My staff, clients and I did not feel safe and my kind pleas for them to leave were met with deaf ears,” she said. “Being a young woman of small stature, I do not feel safe approaching a large group of men using drugs, for fear of retaliation on myself, my staff, or my clientele.”
The group left behind garbage, drug paraphernalia and blood stains when they finally moved on, she said.
“It’s really difficult because there’s so many people that clearly need help. They don’t have places to go, or they don’t have the right resources to help them,” she said.
Jim Deva Plaza has attracted a large group of people who get “heavily intoxicated” every day.
“When we do call the police out of desperation, it is hours before any help arrives, or we are simply just told that ‘Downtown is just a bad area,’” she said.
The city’s recovery plan will include ways to address “intertwined” issues such as homelessness, public safety and business recovery, said Coun. Pete Fry.
“We have had issues with homelessness in the West End, although I’ve never seen it quite as bad as this,” he said. “I think it’s been compounded by the vacant stores.”
Earlier this month, the provincial government stepped in to house more than 200 people who had been camping at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside, placing many of them in the Howard Johnson Hotel and others along Granville Street.
But residents of the residential highrises in the area say they were blindsided by the move and complain their lanes, parks and playgrounds have become “outdoor injection sites.”
Their group, Safer Vancouver, has vowed to “flood” the police and elected officials with complaints. They claim they have been harassed by the new residents and fear for their safety.
The Oppenheimer camp was the site of several violent incidents and police confiscated guns, knives, machetes and hatchets during an investigation in February, they note.
B.C. Housing confirmed that it plans to create supervised injection facilities in some of the hotels to provide residents with sterile equipment and safe needle disposal. No drop-ins will be allowed.
Staff and heath-care providers will be on site “if residents decide they are ready to seek treatment.”
“(Supervised injection sites) have some folks concerned, but that concern should be tempered by the benefit that people are not shooting up in alleys and parks and they are less susceptible to overdoses,” said Fry. “It can also help leverage (people) into supportive services like counselling and address their medical issues.”
Public disturbances may occur as previously homeless tenants get used to living indoors, but those incidents tend to decrease dramatically as residents stabilize, said the housing authority.