The city’s safer downtown community liaison Dave Walsh has been on the job for just more than a month, and he says the task is more about public education than having people arrested.
Walsh knows his beat.
“Not much has changed in the last four or five years since I was here,” said the retired RCMP superintendent and Ridge Meadows detachment commander. “There might be a few more addicted/homeless people in and around the area.”
City council hired him in July, after a June stakeholder’s workshop discussing the extended opening of the temporary shelter operated by RainCity Housing. The first recommendation was to create a temporary position to support public safety in the downtown. He works with business owners, residents and RainCity to deal with issues in a timely manner.
Some members of the public need to get the message that problems with addiction and mental health can’t be solved with police arrests, said Walsh.
“Let’s say we could, and we arrested five people today – probably all five would be released today.” he said. “How does that solve our problem?”
He acts as an observer and is opening the lines of communication with businesses in and around the shelter.
“Probably 95 per cent of what I’m doing is education,” he said.
He tells people that vagrancy is no longer an offence.
“A lot of people confuse the appearance of somebody, who is disheveled or is loitering, with them being unsafe, but in my experience that is not the case,” he said.
“They’re here, and we have a moral, and now legal, obligation to help these people.”
“The courts have told us as a community, as a society in BC, that we have a duty of care to these people,” he said.
He said many of his calls are about homeless people being on or near someone’s property.
“Primarily it’s what do I do with. Sometimes it’s about needles that have been found. Sometimes it’s about suspicious activity, and I’ll direct them to the police or bylaws. Or 95 per cent of the time it’s an education of what can or cannot be done in a given situation,” he said.
“If someone is just homeless and addict, and they’re just sitting there, there’s really nothing to call the police about.”
RCMP Superintendent Dave Fleugel has said many times arresting people with addiction, untreated mental illness and who are living on the street does not help them.
“The justice system doesn’t have a really good track record of fixing that,” said Fleugel.
He said the justice system “does a really good job” of dealing with violent offenders and drug dealers.
“That’s been our focus, and that’s been my direction to our elite investigators,” he said, adding there are plainclothes officers conducting surveillance and search warrants on drug houses and drug dealers.
He frequently hears members of the public say police should arrest people who are homeless and using drugs.
“Get them treatment and get them out of my neighbourhood,” is the common refrain.
“The reality is, if enforcement worked, the Downtown East Side would have been cleaned up 40 years ago – that’s the truth of the matter. It’s just not an effective way of getting people clean and sober long term.”
Fleugel said police will arrest people for public intoxication or breach of probation. “Suspicious person” is the number one call for service in Maple Ridge, and police identifying those people, and trying to bring charges against them.
“But it’s not going to solve our issue,” said Fleugel.
The RCMP has a four-member foot beat team and bike patrols downtown, and school youth officers have been re-deployed there for the summer for more visibility.
“We’ve got a lot of members, a lot of heads on this issue, to try and improve the situation,” he said.
Fleugel supports the province’s plan to open a new purpose-built shelter and transitional housing facility, although he did not comment on the proposed site.
Ted Swabey, the city chief administrative officer, is concerned the public is comparing the proposed new facility with the present shelter.
“Clearly what we have is a temporary shelter in it’s current location, which was put together in a mattress store, former CRU (commercial rental unit). What the province is building, or proposing to build, is a transitional housing facility of which one component is a shelter,” he said
He said it will have around-the-clock monitoring, and “all the health wraparound services that you would expect, to help the people enter into other forms of treatment.”