If we are ever going to address the issue of homelessness, one of the first things we need to do is to separate the plight of the truly desperate from who choose to loiter and drink downtown.
The business community has heard repeated complaints from employees and customers about being harried, verbally abused and intimidated by a small, but growing, segment of people who choose to do so.
The RCMP does their best with limited resources but they do not have the time to escort customers through a lineup of ever more aggressive panhandlers when they are taking a deposit to the bank or on other errands.
In the past few weeks alone, one employee was unable to complete the daily trip to the bank on multiple occasions due to verbal harassment from a large group gathered in Brolly Square.
A second recent incident involved a mother with her young son and baby in tow who was surrounded while entering an ATM area by people aggressively bothering her for handouts.
These are the types of incidents that are causing people not to shop or socialize downtown.
Moreover the age of the people hanging around drinking seems to be getting younger.
Without access to a proper detox centre, the problem is getting worse, not better.
The RCMP and justice system are overwhelmed. One only has to read the police reports online to realize that the people that are supposed to protect us are instead being used as medical responders, taxis and social workers. Privately, some members inside the force in Terrace have estimated that as few as 50 people consume up to 80 per cent of the local detachment’s time and resources.
It’s time that we recognized that mental health is not a police problem; it is a social problem and one that is chronically underfunded by senior levels of government.
The vacuum created by the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals has never been adequately filled. The closing of institutions like Riverview and others was intended to provide care for people in need within their own communities.
Without proper funding and support systems in place, this has proven to be a colossal failure, especially in northern BC. Traditional police response to people with mental illness has proven to be ineffective, and occasionally tragic.
Not every street person in Terrace has mental health issues. There are people who choose this lifestyle.
People locally interviewed in the past have suggested they “already had a place”, usually elsewhere, yet choose to be here, where their friends are.
These people and the others who have access to housing, yet still choose to drink to excess publicly, are the ones who try the patience and consume the good will of the people who would otherwise help.
Precious social resources are being diverted from people who desperately need them to deal with repeat offenders on the court assembly line.
The first step out of poverty is a home and meaningful employment. How can someone be expected to “pull themselves up” with dignity if all you are worried about is where you are going to sleep that night or where to keep whatever meagre possessions you may have?
I can’t help but feel that by allowing people to concentrate limited resources on the people who really need it, then the truly destitute would have a much better chance at long term success.
Downtown sweeps have proven useless in regards to long term solutions for the truly homeless and people with severe mental health issues.
Arresting the same people over and over and releasing them back to the streets just produces frustration for all involved.
That is not to say that policing doesn’t play a part in keeping our streets safe for our citizens.
That people do not feel safe and secure to walk or shop in their own community is simply not acceptable.
This is not a race issue, it’s a human being issue and a multi-party solution has to be not only more humane, but cheaper in the long run than the current endless cycle of arrest and release.
The communities of Terrace, Thornhill and Kitimat, along with the Tsimshian, Haisla and Nisga’a nations must together to find a more permanent and humanitarian solution.
It’s then up to the respective levels of government to adequately fund those solutions.
Steve Smyth is a current board member of The Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce and former board member of the Terrace-Kitimat Airport Society.