Townhall meeting on crime hits a nerve

Anger and frustration as local businesses demand action on crime and homelessness

It didn’t take long for the anger to emerge at last week’s town hall meeting on crime.

The meeting had been called by the Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce to advise business owners what their options were in the face of homelessness, addiction and crime. The chamber brought in RCMP legal advisor Kyle Friesen who talked about things like private property rights, video surveillance and privacy.

But the conversation quickly turned from what business owners could do to help themselves, to why police and city officials were not doing enough.

The frustration was real, and the anger understandable. These are the people on the frontlines of a crisis that has seen homeless rates in Chilliwack skyrocket. Not only are there more people on the streets, the issues are more complex, thanks to the proliferation of opioids. Addiction, and the crime associated with feeding that addiction, have left business owners feeling abandoned. They accused the RCMP of failing to take their concerns seriously, and the City of actually enabling the behaviour by allowing the homeless to camp in public parks.

Speaking out were business owners of all stripes, from major retail employers to small storefronts, to financial institutions. It’s not just a question of inconvenience, they argued. They fear for the safety of themselves and their employees, and they fear for the health of their business.

It’s impossible to ignore their concern. In the past few years we’ve seen the number of people living on the street escalate. We’ve witnessed the debris left behind – the garbage and the needles, the smashed windows, the stolen property and the assualts.

But anger is only helpful if it’s channelled properly. At Thursday’s meeting, city officials were again forced to explain the presence of homeless camping in city parks.

To be clear, the City of Chilliwack did not allow overnight camping in public parks.

The Supreme Court did.

The City simply regulated that ruling through a series of bylaws that we must now enforce. Every day tax dollars are spent cleaning up the mess left behind and ensuring the campers are abiding by the bylaws. City officials don’t like it, but the decision wasn’t theirs and they don’t have the power to change it.

Police, too, are constrained by things beyond their control. Their resources are finite. And when they are deployed, they’re done on a priority basis.

That may come as little comfort to the business owner who steps around some shady character sleeping in her doorway, but it will help the victim of a domestic assault who’s locked herself in the bathroom while she calls 911.

More resources are on their way. The addition of 10 RCMP members, as well as municipal support staff, are enabling police to heighten visibility and conduct more daytime patrols. They’re joined by private security, city bylaw officers, and even local crime prevention volunteers.

Progress is also being made on the homeless front. Shelters are being built, both emergency and longterm.

Certainly more can be done. Delays in addiction treatment are appalling. And despite all the hand wringing and consternation, illicit drug use continues to climb.

The frustration is understandable. But that makes it all the more important that our anger is turned into action. Demand our healthcare system provide addiction treatment that matches the crisis we face. Call on our provincial and federal politicians to do more to help people get off the streets. Find out what crime prevention steps you can take to make your business more secure and your employees safe.

And continue to speak out. Get the facts, and be an advocate for a safe, yet compassionate, community.

Greg Knill is editor of the Chilliwack Progress.