A non-profit that benefits the homeless and drug users is hurting its neighbouring businesses in downtown Maple Ridge, say entrepreneurs.
Michelle Taylor, owner of the Little Cricket Gift Gallery, said the Food for the Soul centre was a key factor in her decision to close the shop that had been on Lougheed Highway for two decades. She has personally operated it for the past seven years.
Kim Guthro of Defiance Piercing and Tattoo said she used to be at her store seven days a week, but now she avoids going there. She could move the business.
“I’m one incident away from saying ‘I can’t handle this block,’” Guthro told The News.
Another nearby entrepreneur, who wished to remain anonymous, said their business plans to relocate in a matter of months.
All three talk about the problem of having homeless, drug addicted and mentally ill people making their customers uncomfortable, and the neighbourhood unwelcoming to visitors.
They all say they want to see supports for the homeless community, but question this latest non-profit’s location. All are asking why a facility offering addiction treatment, free counselling and meal programs for the homeless opened in a high-profile business location on the Lougheed Highway.
Taylor made the tough decision to close the Little Cricket storefront, moving to a pop-up shop at The ACT Arts Centre, and an online gallery at littlecricketgiftgallery.ca.
She hasn’t closed the book on Little Cricket, just the former location, she said.
Taylor –who served on the Downtown Maple Ridge Business Improvement Association for four years – said the organization makes efforts to make the downtown look inviting, but high profile homelessness, addiction and mental health issues are making it impossible.
“It doesn’t matter how pretty your store is, if someone is standing in front of it, yelling profanity, with their pants down around their knees, spilling coffee all over your windows and pan-handling your customers,” she said. “No amount of paint or new signage is going to distract your customers from what is happening before their eyes.”
Some customers were scared to even get out of their cars. Inside the store, they would be “subjected to all the yelling, fighting and swearing going on (outside) while I crank my soft indie music louder to try to drown out the mayhem and provide a ‘pleasant’ shopping experience for them.”
Taylor’s employees would be met in the morning by drug paraphernalia, cigarette butts, condoms, underwear, shoes and even the occasional person laying at the front door.
Guthro’s experience is similar to Taylor’s, but recent confrontations have her considering moving after 15 years in her present location.
She was open on a Sunday, and a staff member from Food For the Soul – perhaps not aware she was working – served a homeless person a box of food right in the vestibule in front of her door. Guthro said she asked them politely to move away from her entrance, and there was a confrontation.
“Then [the non-profit clients] sometimes open my door and come on in without any masks, and you get confrontations,” she said. Now her door is almost always locked, unless she leaves it open when expecting a customer by appointment.
People loiter in front of her store, leave messes, and she has photos of them openly doing drugs on the sidewalk.
The clients of Food for the Soul are aware of her complaints, and she does get some hostility from them, she said.
Guthro said the city’s community safety officers are doing a “smoking job,” but can’t always be there when she needs them.
“I’m not heartless to this cause, but this is my business,” said Guthro, often getting emotional as she related her experiences.
The city is looking into the issue.
When Food For the Soul applied for a business licence, the zoning of their property allowed for the uses they applied for, said city spokesman Fred Armstrong.
“The city is aware of concerns expressed about the impacts of this business’s operation and an investigation has been opened,” he added. “As a result, we are unable to provide additional details at this time.”
Aida Tajbakhesh has run the non-profit since November of 2019, offering referrals for methadone and suboxone treatment, as well as addictions counselling, housing referrals, food, clothing and generally a connection to the community.
She is seeking a larger location, such as a church or a community centre, to run her meal program.
Tajbakhesh said there were few complaints with her business until COVID-19 struck. Now there are limits on people allowed in the building – meaning they have to line up outside.
With the pandemic eventually under control, she believes Food For the Soul will once again have little impact on neighbours.
“We’re trouble shooting right now, to keep working better with the community,” said Tajbakhesh.
She said there is a lot of need for their services in Maple Ridge. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving a person who has been sleeping outside a place to warm up, a cup of coffee, and a personal connection. After that, the staff might get that person to see a doctor about a health problem, or even start them on opioid agonist therapy, such as methadone or suboxone.
“There is a big need. If we can all become more aware of the need, then there won’t be people falling through the cracks,” she said.