The unfair public image costs of “policing poverty”

Op-eds Opinions

Victoria’s housing and drug crises put police officers in a controversial position 

It’s always been normal to see people living on the street in Victoria. Like Vancouver, Victoria is one of the few urban centres in Canada where temperatures remain relatively livable year-round. The city is used to having a homeless population, so panhandling and sleeping rough is generally accepted as a regular sight in the downtown core. 

But over the past several years, in the midst of the housing and opioid crises, the situation has worsened with, according to two Greater Victoria point-in-time counts, hundreds more people experiencing homelessness in 2018 than in 2016. This has led to controversy over not only what the city can or should be doing to alleviate this problem, but also over the role of the Victoria Police Department in maintaining public order and safety during the crises.  

There is no denying that Victoria can be an impossible city in which to live — at least if you want four walls and a roof over your head. A recent article by The Capital showed that Victoria is the most expensive mid-sized Canadian city to purchase a home, and, outside of Vancouver and Toronto, the most expensive place to rent. 

The average rent for a bachelor apartment in 2018 was $849 a month (a 7.3 per cent jump from the previous year). The current minimum wage of $13.85 means that even if a minimum-wage worker had a 30-hour work week — something that many people without stable, full-time employment do not have — that bachelor apartment is still technically unaffordable, as it costs more per month than 50 per cent of the would-be renter’s income. Sure, there’s rental assistance, but that maxes out at $375 per month. Combine that with Victoria’s 2018 vacancy rate of 0.7 per cent and long waitlists for social and supportive housing, and the situation is dire. Even if you have somewhere to live, you might not keep it for long. Ten per cent of moves in B.C. were forced by either the landlord or the bank (twice as many as the national average). 

All of this means that Victoria has an unstable rental environment in a very expensive town, the obvious result being a high number of people with nowhere to live, and no space available to create supportive housing alongside the necessary services. The actual homeless population could be anywhere from 931 to 1 525 depending on who you ask, meaning that Victoria is home to 50 to 81 per cent of Vancouver Island’s homeless population of roughly 1 884. 

In a perfect world, would police officers be on the front lines of dealing with people who, for a multitude of reasons, cannot afford housing in Victoria? Of course not.

According to the 2018 Greater Victoria Point-In-Time Count, 67.7 per cent of homeless respondents identified high rental costs as a barrier to finding housing, with 53.1 per cent identifying low income, and 50.8 per cent claiming a lack of available options. 27.3 per cent (33.8 per cent among Indigenous respondents) stated that addiction negatively impacted their ability to find somewhere to live. 93.7 per cent wanted permanent housing, but were unable to access it. So, hundreds of people occupy friends’ couches, shelters, jail cells, hospital beds, and sidewalks.

It’s tragic, it truly is. However, Victoria’s high homeless population also constitutes a public safety hazard and poses a legitimate risk to downtown businesses. The past decade’s increase in homelessness also brought a rise in the undesirable byproducts that make residents, tourists, and business owners feel unsafe — things like increased visible drug use, public defecation, and a tent city that occupied the provincial courthouse lawn for nearly a year. 

Victoria’s city council has tried to provide more supportive housing and safe injection sites in the downtown core — ignoring the reality that downtown is supposed to be a centre of business, shopping, dining, and nightlife — and as a result the Capital Regional District (CRD) has run out of space for supportive housing and homelessness and drug addiction have become ever more visible on sidewalks, with daily crowds of 60–80 people around the Pandora Street safe injection site.

At the same time, rates of property crime, violent crime, and non-criminal calls for service have been going up in the CRD, despite crime rates decreasing in the rest of the province. Victoria Police Department officers have become what the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) call “de facto ‘first responders’ to health-related issues on city streets,” responding to thousands of unwanted person, overdose, disturbance, and many other types of non-criminal calls. In the first eight months of 2018, officers responded to roughly 24 calls per day to six shelters downtown — a total of 5 886 calls. The reality of being a police officer in Victoria has changed, with cops having to switch between social work and law enforcement, responding with compassion to increasingly unsafe and erratic behaviour downtown and still ensuring public safety. 

They don’t get much thanks for it. Instead, the department has to cope with an inadequate budget and critics who accuse it of “policing poverty.”

At the more extreme end of the disruption caused by the inaccessibility of housing, the tent city outside the provincial courthouse caused a dramatic spike in disturbances, garbage, crime, and fear for neighbours, with nights disrupted by the sounds of screaming, fighting, and breaking glass. Until the campers were removed, property crime and break-ins became increasingly brazen, with some campers attempting to enter nearby apartments while inhabitants were home. Even after the encampment was dismantled, a foot and a half of soil had to be replaced to remove residual traces of diesel, gasoline, lead, and methamphetamines. Nearly the same number of people as occupied the tent city gather on the 900-block of Pandora Street every day. Without law enforcement, a similar encampment outside of Our Place and Alix Goolden Hall does not seem outside the realm of possibility.

It seems obvious that as homelessness increases downtown and health services and income supports fail to ameliorate the situation, it is necessary for business owners to turn to the police for help, but apparently not everyone sees it that way. VIPIRG, as well as many other individuals (who perhaps do not live or work downtown, or frequent the area after dark) view this as the police discriminating against the visible poor and trying to scare the city into granting it an outsized budget. Council seems to take a similar attitude, refusing to meet the police department’s 2019 budget requirements, causing cuts to the front line units that respond to most housing and addiction related calls. 

Council’s budget decision does not mean that the department will receive fewer calls, or that it will be less necessary for officers to respond to calls related to the homeless population. What an inadequate budget means is that the department will have fewer resources to dedicate to crime prevention and to responding to mental health and unwanted person calls patiently and compassionately. This is dangerous because there is another injustice that many people ignore — that the burden of responding to the housing and opioid crises in Victoria have largely fallen on the police, because the appropriate housing, social, and health services are not available, and because what services are available have been concentrated downtown.

In a perfect world, would police officers be on the front lines of dealing with people who, for a multitude of reasons, cannot afford housing in Victoria? Of course not. There should be more affordable housing, shelters, and services decentralized from the downtown core. People with addictions and mental health problems should be given help, and everyone should have a realistic chance of accessing permanent housing, which is considered vital to kicking substance abuse habits. But those more socially responsible solutions are not currently well funded, and the solution to that problem is not to underfund and vilify our primary public safety organization, when there is no other appropriate system in place.

People should be able to safely enjoy downtown Victoria at night, comfortably wait at the bus stop at Johnson Street and Douglas Street, and attend a performance at Alix Goolden Hall without walking past open drug use on the sidewalk. Someone has to answer the calls from business owners dealing with property damage and aggressive, mentally ill, or drug-influenced people making their patrons uncomfortable. Someone has to make sure that campers move on in the morning so that dangerous tent cities don’t develop. Poverty is not illegal and services should be exponentially more available, but the unavoidable byproduct of a large homeless population is an increased risk to public safety, and responding to that threat is absolutely what the Victoria Police Department should be doing.