3 min

Safe from whom?

Don't oversimplify West End safety problems

Credit: Xtra West files

Imagine this scenario. A political party comes into power in an increasingly desperate province by promising middle-of-the-road policies, at a time when people are exhausted by the constant negative media coverage of the previous government’s apparent inability to do right.

The new government immediately implements a multi-billion dollar tax cut, benefiting mainly the already well-off, then starts to slash and burn social programs in a revolutionary spirit directly counter to their moderate election promises.

As people lose their social supports, an increasing number turn to prostitution, stealing to support themselves and their kids, or end up on the streets. An increasing number turn to drugs.

Gradually, police actions spread these people throughout the city. In neighbourhood after neighbourhood, the original residents feel less safe, demand an increase in policing and for new tough laws to combat crime.

An election comes and the party successfully runs on a platform emphasizing fighting crime through increased policing, new vagrancy laws, and tougher sentencing-to solve a problem they created.

Too cynical? Perhaps.

But that’s what came to mind as I watched a packed Aug 21 meeting called by gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt to discuss safety issues of concern to the West End communities.

There were few gays at the meeting-and none of the invited speakers were from the pool of gay people who have been working on our safety issues for nearly two years.

Mayencourt was even-handed in chairing the meeting. He gave equal say to those who blame the rise in crime on provincial cutbacks to policing and social programs and to those who think the problem will be solved by pressuring city hall to hire more cops and courts to implement a get-tough approach.

Queers have been working for the last two years to shift policing priorities in the West End from property issues to issues of violence, especially gaybashing. Many at the meeting seemed to want to shift the priorities back to protecting property.

Let’s be sophisticated about this. There are at least three separate issues at work here. First, there are the genuine criminals-many of them scary looking-who are doing the stealing in the West End. There are about 20-30 of them, they can be seen mainly in Nelson Park and the corner of Bute and Davie, when they’re not off burglaring. If we take them out of the equation, the major criminal problem is dealt with.

Then there are the homeless. Policing is not the answer to this, provincial spending is.

Then there are the mentally ill. Policing is no solution. Provincial spending is.

Mayencourt points out that his government has increased spending for social housing and mental health. Good. More is needed and so is provincial money for drug rehabilitation and a safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside. (As for policing, the Liberals eliminated spending on Vancouver’s community policing centres so it’s a little disingenuous for the MLA to call on city hall to increase the police budget.)

“We need to get tough with criminals,” says Jim Deva, who has spent the last nearly two years wrapped up in community policing issues on behalf of the gay community. “But that’s not the homeless, people with mental deficiencies or drug addicts. We cannot throw them in jail. They have to go into treatment.”

Some problems cannot be cost-effectively solved by increased policing. And attempting to do so diverts needed cops from the important stuff. Like gaybashing in the West End.

Both Deva and Mayencourt want to see increased citizen participation, including citizen street patrols. That can best be done through the Davie Street Community Policing Centre.

Good on Mayencourt for getting people talking, especially the West End’s senior citizens, many of whom no longer feel safe walking around their own neighbourhood. But let’s make sure the issues are not oversimplified. Our gay safety representatives must be involved in any West End response. And crimes of genuine violence must become the policing priority, not property issues like graffiti and homeless and mentally ill people camped out in parkades, or addicts shooting up in garages.

The province needs to focus on social programs to take care of those deeper issues.

Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.