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Victoria street crime has some downtown retailers wanting out

‘What we’re seeing is more and more a complete state of lawlessness and that is terrifying when all we are trying to do here is run our business,’ one business owner says

The B.C. government recently pledged a crack down on street crime, and officials do not have to look far to get started: just blocks from the Legislature, spiralling crime in the provincial capital is forcing some veteran business owners to consider moving out, as detailed in this report from the Times Colonist.

Ryan Burghardt was recently charged by a man brandishing scissors and a handful of his own feces.

It wasn’t the first time the owner of Budget Brake and Muffler, at Douglas and Bay streets in Victoria, has had to ward off attacks and threats or absorb the costs of ongoing thefts and vandalism by an unsheltered population in the downtown core, many of them suffering from drug addiction and severe mental-health issues. And it isn’t going to be the last, Burghardt said.

“It happens all the time around here,” he said.

Vehicles have been damaged, staff have been put in danger and items have been stolen, including a cellphone off the front counter.

“You just wonder if it’s ever going to end,” Burghardt said. “Moving my business out of the downtown core is a weekly thought. Langford is an option, but it’s pretty hard to uproot a 40-year-old business. I already commute from Mill Bay because I’ve moved my family to a safer place to live.”

Burghardt’s nine staff are used to the almost daily incidents. Some have pepper spray for protection.

A block away on Government Street, David Screech of Gregg’s Furniture is considering moving his business; it has been there for 55 years.

This week, Screech was in his office when a man burst in and started yelling at him to clean his windows, and violently punched the big panes as he left.

“It was the first time I’ve felt really vulnerable in my ­business,” said Screech.

The incidents have been piling up. He has found remnants of fires around his building. Last month, the company delivery van had its catalytic converter ripped out and mirrors destroyed — an $1,800 bill — and one staff member was threatened with a knife after a man was found sleeping in his car.

Screech said he and staff have to regularly clean up human excrement and remove people out of their entries and small parking lot.

“We regularly have to worry about our personal safety and I certainly cannot leave our female sales staff alone in the store,” he said.

Screech said the random violence and vandalism is ­getting worse. “What we’re seeing is more and more a complete state of lawlessness and that is ­terrifying when all we are trying to do here is run our business,” he said.

That sentiment is being ­echoed across the core as repeat offenders are arrested for crimes and often released the next day.

On Thursday, Victoria police reported they were looking for a man who threw hot coffee on women in two separate incidents in the 1200 and 1400 blocks of Douglas Street downtown.

One victim, a teenager, was sitting at a bus stop, while the other was just crossing the street. One of the women was taken to hospital for an ­assessment.

It isn’t the first time someone has thrown coffee at a complete stranger. In October, a mother was pushing her baby in a stroller in the 900 block of Yates Street when a man, without any warning, verbally accosted her and threw a cup of coffee all over the mother and baby. The drink wasn’t hot enough to cause injuries.

Over the weekend, B.C. Premier David Eby announced a new public safety plan for the province that included more mental-health response teams and an increased focus on tackling repeat offenders.

The plan centres on two areas — enforcement and intervention, the premier said.

The province wants to deploy response teams of police officers, prosecutors and probation officers who will focus on repeat offenders. It will also be adding 12 mental- health response teams in communities across the province, some of which will be Indigenous-led.

“These peer-assisted teams intervene when people are in mental-health crisis in our streets, freeing up police to focus on crime rather than social service,” Eby said.

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said crime is an ongoing concern downtown, where member businesses in retail, hotel and food services are heading into the Christmas season — a key period when they earn a lot of their revenue to carry them over the leaner months of winter.

He said some businesses have had to lock their doors during the day after incidents of mentally ill or drug-induced people bursting in to steal or cause disturbances, in one case barricading a change room. Others are having trouble retaining staff who don’t want to work after dark. Some property owners have told Bray that national retailers are spurning rental offers because prolonged street issues have tattered the downtown’s reputation.

And the vandalism is adding up, said Bray. “Every window that’s broken is a $1,000 deductible, and if you’re selling shoes, that’s a lot of shoes to make make up the difference,” he said.

Bray said the new Victoria council “heard loud and clear on the doorstep” during the October election that open drug use and vandalism downtown has to change. He said those behaviours “were normalized” under previous councils, and now the province and local governments have to make “bold changes.”

“You’ve got all the social services [for the region], things like safe consumption sites, all within a five-block radius,” said Bray. “That wouldn’t be acceptable in Fernwood and it’s not acceptable here.”

Grant McKenzie of Our Place Society estimates there are about 500 people living on the street in the downtown core in tents, make-shift shelters or doorways. Many suffer from mental illness and severe drug addiction.

He said a toxic drug supply on the streets has fuelled mental illness and violence in the community. Repeated drug use and revivals from overdoses damage the brain, said McKenzie, calling toxic chemicals such as methamphetamine a “parasite” that brings compounding trauma that induces violent behaviour.

“Criminality becomes more part of their day to day because they don’t feel there are any consequences,” he said. “In a way, they are calling for help.”

McKenzie said the province’s new plan for mental-health teams “is the first step,” but more is needed to provide the complex care addicts need, including well co-ordinated efforts among health teams and new facilities where they can get off the street and be properly treated.

“We’re seeing a change in people’s behaviour,” he said. “The street community is less of a community than what we were used to [a few years ago] when people would look out for each other. We have to declare drug addiction a pandemic because the death rate is climbing.”

Burghardt said he has witnessed the tragedy of drug addiction unfold around his brake and muffler shop.

“You see these young people, like teens and 20 year olds, start hanging around with these [addicts,]” he said.

“They have cars and, within a month or two, the cars are gone and you see them become one of them. It’s awful.”