Local business owners and politicians came together on Wednesday, Jan. 19, to call for better supports, systems and outreach in Cranbrook, and expressing concerns that a recent rise in crime correlates to a rise in homelessness in the city.
Shannon Fisher, owner of Top Crop in Cranbrook, where the town hall meeting was held, recently reached out to the business community asking for emails that detail any crimes business owners may have experienced over the past several years. She relayed those messages to all levels of local government, RCMP, and the Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce.
Fisher says that in the past two years there has been an increase in crime at her store, putting her employees in a tough situation, and forcing her to install security cameras and barbed wire fencing.
“I thought, we can’t be the only store experiencing this, so I started to ask around to other businesses in the area,” she said. “Every day we have to do a perimeter check, pick up needles and take note of what has been damaged or stolen. It’s a daily process now.”
She adds that her business has had fences cut, signs stolen, homeless camps established outside of their yard, fires lit, staff items and nursery items stolen, and that staff can no longer come to work alone — they’ve been forced to put a buddy system in place.
She recalled a story that was submitted by a concerned resident.
“I had a mother email me, her daughter was working at a pet store. It was her first job — just trying to save up for college,” Fisher said. “An incoherent man came into the pet store, asking to purchase some fish. So the girl helped him out, and as he was checking out he was unloading drug paraphernalia on the counter. So the girl went and got her manager, who asked the man to leave. He got upset and as he was leaving, he stood there and ate the live fish right in front of them. She’s traumatized now. She quit her job. It was quite horrific. This is what our young people are being exposed to; just trying to do their jobs.”
Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison, Kootenay-East MLA Tom Shypitka, Cranbrook Mayor Lee Pratt and Helen Barron, Executive Director of the Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce, were at the meeting, as well as at least a dozen business owners. Many of them said that they are not “picking on the homeless population,” but rather, trying to bring attention to the link between homelessness, drug use, and the rise in crime here in Cranbrook.
Shypitka said that there is a victimized and marginalized population in town, many of whom are experiencing addiction and homelessness.
“They are sons, daughters, mothers and fathers,” he said. “And they aren’t getting the support that they need. This is a multi-layered issue — mental health, addictions, housing. We’re providing a couple of pillars of support, but there are more needed. Safe drug supply — that’s fine in the short-term, but there’s nothing on the back end. There’s no detox centre here at all.”
Fisher echoed that sentiment.
“These people aren’t being supported. They are being failed and so is the business community. I’ve received hundreds of emails and phone calls from business owners and residents who are struggling. Something has to change,” she said. “The business community is not, by any means, saying these people don’t deserve to live here. But they need to be supported. They need counselling, the chance to live a better life. We’re the ones left having to pick up the pieces. There has to be some accountability.”
Business owners and contractors from Just Liquid Sports, Neno’s Paint and Body, Bubble Hut Cafe, Southeast Maintenance, and many others all shared stories of a similar thread.
They’ve had to purchase security systems, they’ve lost thousands of dollars in stolen and damaged goods. Some have had to clean up needles on a daily basis, and deal with human excrement and unsafe garbage. Many have been calling the police on a regular basis because their businesses continue to be broken into. They’ve had to deal with homeless camps being established outside of their businesses. They all raised concerns for the safety of their employees and customers. The list goes on.
Some business owners even said they’ve considered closing their doors. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the crime and safety issues, they’re at their wits’ end.
Barron, from the Chamber, said that their building has also experienced theft, vandalization and homeless camps, among other things.
“In December of 2020 we sent a letter to the City, and it has since gotten worse and worse. I don’t understand how businesses can continue to bear this brunt, especially with COVID,” she said. “It’s a provincial issue, but at the root of it, it’s a community issue. Crimes need to be punished. There needs to be social support agencies put in place and they also need to be supported so they can help people who are dealing with mental health and addictions issues.”
BC Housing put in place community self-isolation sites and shelter expansions at the beginning of the pandemic. They are open to those experiencing homelessness, people without safe spaces to self-isolate and youth.
The organization works with regional health authorities, municipal partners, and experienced non-profit shelter and housing providers to identify locations where people who require housing can find it, more specifically for self-isolation, according to the BC Housing website.
Some sites are in hotels, motels and community centres. There are 38 sites in the Interior, three of which are in Cranbrook. The exact locations are not disclosed on the BC Housing site and those who seek shelter at these sites, according to BC Housing, must fit a certain criteria.
The Travelodge Hotel has been a point of discussion in the Cranbrook community as of late, as it is known that many people experiencing homelessness have been living there for the past two years or so.
Mayor Pratt says that Cranbrook is “not what it used to be.” Having grown up here, he said he used to be able to leave his front door wide open.
“That is not the case today,” he said to the group. “We have to go back to square one.”
Pratt said BC Housing put plans in place that the City was not privy to. He added that he has had meetings with social agencies like ANKORS and RCMP.
“We’ve tried to fill those gaps, but the gaps, as you know, are enormous,” he said. “The RCMP are frustrated too. It all points back to David Eby [B.C. Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing]. Temporary shelters are not the answer. These people need long-term help. The problem at the Travelodge is going to continue downtown [with the new, proposed shelter]. We need to go straight to the top. We need institutions. These people need to be picked up, get the help they need and get them back into society. A temporary bed isn’t going to do that.”
BC Housing has put plans in place for a proposed homeless shelter in Cranbrook, potentially located at 209 16th Ave N, which is across from Mount Baker Secondary School. The proposal includes around 40 sleeping pods in a facility that would be open and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It would provide temporary housing and meals, laundry and storage for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
Many of those in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting expressed concerns not only for the location of the proposed shelter, but also, what kind of supports will actually be available.
Shannon Tang is the owner of Bubble Hut Cafe in Cranbrook. She says that a lot of her customers are young students — her cafe is located just down the street from the high school. She also employs several youth. She says that she has concerns for the people living in the house next to her business. There have been several instances where she has been concerned for her own safety, as well as the safety of students and staff, from fights including pepper spray to people locking themselves in the cafe’s washroom.
“It makes me sick to my stomach to think that my staff could get hurt,” she said. “Something needs to be done.”
Morrison said that all levels of government need to work together, with the public, to start coming up with a solution.
“COVID will hopefully be short-lived, but this community is forever,” Morrison said. “The opioid crisis is a true crisis, and the federal government needs to step in and be responsible for long-term solutions. They need to put in supports for rehabilitation. We need to turn this boat around and we need solutions. This isn’t the end of it. We will be meeting with the police, Crown council, judges, all levels of government. So many people don’t understand the gravity of this situation. The money spent, the lost hours. We’ll be hosting a town hall in a month or so and we’ll discuss how to move forward. We need businesses involved.”
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