The issue of problems plaguing some West Victoria Street bsusinesses arose during last week’s council meeting.
Asked by Coun. Arjun Singh what more could be done by the city to help concerned businesses and to explain the situation, City of Kamloops protective services director Byron McCorkell pointed to the pandemic. He said with courts not functioning, criminals are released back into the community with conditions, rather than going to jail.
In addition, McCorkell said, street people who previously relied on panhandling have lost that source of income, due to COVID-19. Those two issues are among “myriad” concerns right now, he said, noting RCMP and bylaws are “working hard” and outreach staff are walking the streets. Specifically to West Victoria, McCorkell said a committee of groups, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, is working with businesses and good neighbour agreements are in place with housing providers.
The West Victoria Street corridor is home to not only many longtime businesses, but increasingly more social supports, including on one end a storage facility for the homeless, along with the Mustard Seed Kamloops — offering since the New Life Mission drop-in meals, dental services and more — Rosethorn House permanent supportive housing and the Emerald Centre shelter. Another kilometre west, on Mission Flats Road, is more social housing, the Mission Flats Manor.
The latest addition — Rosethorn House, operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association — opened in January. The CMHA also operates the Emerald Centre, next door, which is essentially ground zero for the city’s street people as it is where people are assessed and placed in the applicable stream to get help.
McCorkell told council the Mustard Seed and the CMHA are cleaning up the area daily, while bylaws and RCMP patrol.
“End of the day, we still have escalated numbers in some of our break-and-enter statistics,” McCorkell said. “There is a number of things happening and I guess all we can say to the community is we are aware, we’re working on it. At the end of the day, they need to participate, too, and heighten their response.”
Mayor Ken Christian also shifted responsibility back onto businesses, noting the city’s police and bylaws cannot be everywhere and businesses need to be cognizant of that. He advised use of security systems and not leaving out items vulnerable to theft.
The response, however, is tough to swallow for business owners, who were grappling with issues well before the pandemic began. KTW interviewed West Victoria Street businesses in early March — before the pandemic upended society — for a story that has simmered on the back burner, until resurrected last week in council chambers. Business owners were already fed up to the point of banding together to meet with media to shine a light on neighbourhood issues, which are complex. Reached again, KTW has learned the pandemic has compounded the situation.
“We’re still facing the same issues,” Nina Johal said. “We’re still facing the same challenges, personal safety. We still have graffiti on our building. We have all the issues, now amplified, but you don’t really have anybody doing anything about it because they’re all saying, ‘We’ve got COVID-19 now, so nothing else is going to be done.’ That’s where we’re at.”
One city councillor continues to advocate on behalf of West Victoria Street businesses. Bill Sarai said business owners have followed city advice — purchasing security cameras and reporting crime — without improvements and are still afraid to go to work. He said issues have occurred on Tranquille Road and in Valleyview in the past and the city should do more to help, such as increasing the presence of bylaws officers, who don’t work through the night.
“Crime doesn’t stop at seven o’clock at night and everybody closes their businesses and goes home, wants to spend time with their family,” Sarai said. “They don’t want to be worried about what’s going on with their businesses throughout the city and what they’re going to come to the next morning. Somewhere along the line, we have to change with the times and maybe bylaws has to be 24-seven, an eight-hour shift, three shifts a day.”
The mayor told KTW he understands that property crime had increased prior to the pandemic and worsened with the pandemic, but he stands by his comments, telling this newspaper “bylaws are not security for businesses.”
“They are not going to business patrols,” Christian said.
“That has got to be the responsibility of those businesses. My message last week and it’s the same this week is that business needs to increase surveillance, they need to update and upgrade their security systems, they need to increase their fortification and, for want of a better word, and they need to stop leaving items in plain view that are going to be a quick turn over for crimes of opportunity. That’s what has to happen in the short-term.
"I think in the longer term, you are going to see, first of all the completion of the West Victoria project and that’s going to provide a little more security down there… and then once that is stabilized and we get the COVID-19 behind us, those facilities are going to be able to increase their outreach programs along that corridor. That’s what I see as the longer term solution down there. But it won’t be a city solution, it will be a community solution.”
Speaking with KTW, McCorkell encouraged businesses to protect their properties using CPTED principles or by hiring security, similar to security outside of the Thompson Nicola Regional District building at night. McCorkell said such problems are not unique to West Victoria Street, but the area is in the spotlight because of its newest social housing facility, Rosethorn.
“We’re trying to get people into a shelter, into a productive life, yet they are targeted by those that want to bring them back to the drug culture,” McCorkell said. “You’ve got the criminal element hanging around trying to attract them or provide them with things and so they are having to deal with that, too.”
Business owners have more ideas. For one, they want the city to come up with a permanent solution for its fence behind their property.
The fence, which is all that separates foot traffic on West Victoria Street from accessing the multi-use pathway connecting to Overlanders Bridge, the Thompson River and Riverside Park, is constantly vandalized, providing a shortcut through the businesses’ property to access North Kamloops, the river banks or the downtown park.
KTW has heard the fence is cut frequently and businesses have to repeatedly call the city to fix it, thereby preventing access and incentive for people to come onto their properties. Two, the businesses want outreach more often and later in the day, noting problems occur outside regular business hours, similar to Sarai’s point about bylaws.
Three, they want BC Housing and/or CMHA to pay to secure the properties they manage.
After speaking with KTW on May 8, McCorkell said he had a good meeting with a business owner and the city will be trying some new things this week, including: graffiti clean up through the corridor, daily fence inspections and patrols
CMHA Kamloops manager of operations Alfred Achoba, meanwhile, said security is not being considered at this time. He noted foot patrols already occur in the area. The latest shift, however, is at about 7 p.m. — much earlier than problems reported by businesses. To that, Achoba said Rosethorn House has someone on call 24-seven and, if businesses are experiencing nuisance behaviour after hours, he encouraged them to call. Still, that requires business owners to respond to situations in the middle of the night, leaving them to fend for themselves and continue to respond without help.
Ultimately, Achoba said increased services will do more to improve the situation. Businesses, meanwhile, continue to wait for those services to arrive.
“It starts from the top down,” Mindy Sandhu said. “Not from the bottom top.”