Woman in tears points to damaged mural

More Chaos, Less Patience – qathet has a serious crime problem

Originally published on qathet Living

By Isabelle Southcott

More than most, Debbie Dee’s words hold weight on issues affecting marginalized locals. So when she stood at the lectern at the Evergreen Theatre on September 14, the 200-plus people who had come to discuss solutions to the escalating crime issue listened intently. Debbie has been executive director of the Powell River Brain Injury Society since 2003. She was a Powell River city councillor from 2008 to 2014. In her speech at the meeting, she revealed that last year, she lost her step-son, Bodie, to a fentanyl overdose. 

Debbie was very clear: Powell River’s support system for struggling people isn’t working. It’s not working for people with addictions, mental health challenges and sometimes brain injuries. It’s not working for the wider community, who have to live with theft, vandalism, and fear. 

“Those victimized by crime also have rights,” she said into the microphone during the Westview Ratepayers meeting called to discuss crime in Westview. “The rights of some do not outweigh the rights of others.” 

Debbie criticized Bill C-57, the so-called “catch and release” legislation that makes it harder to charge and sentence chronic criminals – and ultimately offer them rehabilitation and an entry back into society. 

She condemned the unbalanced approach to addressing substance abuse here. The famous “Four Pillars” includes prevention, enforcement, treatment, and harm reduction – not just harm reduction (as a former staffer at Vancouver’s Dr. Peter Centre during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Debbie has firsthand experience with the Four Pillars). 

And she slashed at Lift (Lift Community Services), the non-profit which runs several local services aimed at serving those who are struggling, saying she is “not a fan.” 

Debbie suggested that Lift could hire independent security to patrol Westview North 24 hours a day, to reduce crime. 

“There are people in that [supported housing] building who are trying to turn their lives around, too,” she said, pointing out that the thefts and disorder in Westview really does stem from just a handful of individuals. 

Lift’s board and executive were invited to the September 14 meeting to answer questions; so were the RCMP. Neither came, citing that this meeting was essentially a campaign event, so their presence would be inappropriate. 

Fair enough. The president of the Westview Ratepayers Society and organizer of the meeting is Ron Woznow, a candidate for Powell River mayor in the October 15 election. Many of the event’s speakers are running for City Council. Debbie, too, is the campaign manager for mayoral candidate Maggie Hathaway, who was at the Union of BC Municipalities meeting in Whistler that night, along with most of this region’s currently-serving leadership. 

With the local government elections looming this month, crime has indeed become a hot political issue, as it should. In many categories, crime in qathet is up by 50% or more from 2018 – when the present leadership was elected – to 2021. Those categories include breaking and entering, assault, harassment, possession of stolen property, and sex offences. Why? And who is responsible? 

Almost everything impacting crime is not controlled by local government. City Hall does not control services for people with mental health or addictions challenges, housing, or courts and corrections. Those are all provincial responsibilities. However, the impact of crime is felt locally. 

At both the September 14 meeting, and at the one in the Post Office upper parking lot in late August – both chaired by Ron in his role with Westview Ratepayers – it is very clear that many residents don’t like what’s happening to their neighbourhood and say that something has to change. They say it’s a hotbed for criminal activity and many say it all started in the fall of 2019, when the Lift supported housing building opened (indeed, local crime surged in 2019; see graph above). 

Speakers acknowledged the increase in homelessness, and the addiction and mental health crisis. Although most speakers said they want to support those who struggle, they also said they will not let anyone terrorize their neighbourhood, traumatize their children and steal their stuff. 

At the meeting, Westivew Raterpayers Society member Dana Summerhill read letters the Society received from residents. One woman said her 13-year-old daughter won’t ride her bike on Kokanee Place, is anxious from seeing police in her neighbourhood and is scared to sleep in her own bedroom. Eighty- two-year-old Rose Pagani, who has lived on Kokanee Place since the early 1960s and Kathy Bennett who lives on Ann Avenue, say they feel unsafe in their own home for the first time in their lives. Like Rose, Robert and Carlene Coulter, who also live on Kokanee Place, have thought about selling and moving. 

“Now I have a house I can’t sell… and a street I can’t walk on at night. My house has a beautiful panoramic ocean view, but all I see are drug addicted thieves walking in front of my house, constantly day and night,” wrote the Coulters in a letter. They also installed security cameras 

Dan Hawkins’ property borders the back of the Westview Centre Motel. He spoke at the first meeting, and spoke out at City Council about his experiences. In an interview with qL, Dan said he lived in a peaceful neighbourhood and felt safe in his home until the motel, because of COVID, became a homeless shelter from 2020 to early 2022. 

“There was lots of yelling and screaming and fighting….there was constant noise all day and night.” 

His shop was broken into and a power saw, mountain bikes, tools and a generator were stolen. “A guy left here with a backpack full, we had him on camera. I’ve had other things taken, but I managed to get them back.” 

One of the tenants of the Westview Centre Motel was caught on camera trying to break into Dan’s home. “She was charged.” 

When people climbed the fence into Dan’s yard and he told them they were trespassing, one threatened him with a Taser. 

One time, he said, there was someone hiding in his yard in the middle of the day with a sledge hammer. “And the garbage,” he said. “They’d just throw stuff out and leave it there.”

Dan’s neighbour once called him because there was a person on the roof of the Westview Centre Motel with a machete and a can of gas. Dan heard afterwards that this person had a fight with her boyfriend and planned to burn him out of the motel, he recalled. 

“It was (almost) two years of living hell. In January it stopped after they moved. You forget what its like to live in peace. It was the worst experience of my life. 

Businesses on Marine Avenue and Joyce have been hit hard. Lorelei Guthrie, Town Centre Mall general manager, explains that, “for us on the front lines it’s a combination of mental health issues and belligerent in-your-face dangerous, and people just behaving poorly. The sad part is that they know there are no consequences. The whole system is broken.” 

Powell River isn’t the only community dealing with an increase in crime. A recent Provincial crime trends report revealed that criminal code offenses were up in BC by about 15% over the past decade. More telling are the protests in small and mid-sized towns, rallying against increased crime – especially property crime and theft. For example, also on September 14, dozens of people attended a rally in front of the Nanaimo Court House to speak out against surging crime in that area. Merchants railed against break-ins and theft, and pointed out that people are having psychotic breakdowns in their stores. They’re calling on all levels of government to address the chaos and restore safety to their community. 

This summer, the Province was studying how to deal with prolific offenders – from both a policing and mental health perspective. 

“An overwhelming number of people have reached out to the experts to share their experiences and recommendations on prolific offenders,” reads a September 2 statement explaining the delay in publication of the study’s report, “including about highly visible crime in downtown cores and unprovoked, violent stranger attacks. The challenges underlying these issues are complex, requiring thoughtful analysis and creative solutions.” 

Reaction to local crime is often less thoughtful and more kneejerk, out of frustration that nothing seems to be addressing it. Now, more than ever, people can share information with others quickly through social media. When a break-in happens, or if someone gets a photo of a person with someone else’s stuff, they can broadcast it online. 

Facebook pages such as qathet North Westview theft watch, Powell River anti-theft squad and Crime Watch Powell River provide information about stolen and recovered items, plus sightings of known thieves. 

Posts such as “We should start putting together some GPS airtags on some bait items like bikes, plants and lawn gear. Some hidden cameras, hidden microphones hooked to old cellphones. We should all chip in and listen in and see where and who is buying all the stolen stuff, who is taking and enabling it all,” are indicative of how fed up and helpless some people in the community feel – and are dangerously close to vigilanteism. 

It is unfortunate that the meeting was held during the campaign period – so neither the RCMP nor Lift were able to answer questions. Like Debbie, many speakers at the meeting blamed Lift for failing to manage the behaviour of those being served by the supported housing building, the overdose prevention site (OPS), the Community Resource Centre (CRC), the winter shelter, and in the motel on Marine Avenue which was used as a shelter during the pandemic. 

Certainly, the meeting featured plenty of horrific anecdotes about alleged clients of these services. However, the agency that funds the services (apart from the OPS and CRC) and controls the contracts is not Lift, but BC Housing.

In August, the CEO of BC Housing, Shayne Ramsay, who has been in the job for 22 years, resigned; he oversaw the NDP’s $291 million Rapid Response to Homelessness, supported housing program, roll out starting in 2017. At the time he quit, he said, “I no longer have confidence I can solve the complex problems facing us at B.C. Housing.” No new CEO has been appointed to take responsibility. 

BC Housing exists under the ministry of Attorney General David Eby, who is the front-runner in the leadership race for the BC NDP party. If he wins on December 3, he will replace John Horgan as premier. 

In other words, it is very likely that the next BC premier will be the person who helped allow what was once a beacon of hope for ending homelessness in BC – the Rapid Response to Homelessness program – to degenerate into a mess of crime, social conflict and lack of accountability in the core of so many of BC’s downtowns. 

What, then, is the solution to surging crime in qathet? What is the compassionate, effective solution to restoring order, trust and inclusiveness in our community? That is the question this series hopes to answer. 

Top image credit: THE PAINT WAS BARELY DRY: Debbie Dee, the executive director of the Powell River Brain Injury Asso- ciation, stands in front of one of the new murals her agency commissioned and helped paint behind the Royal Bank in Town Centre Mall. Food has already been splattered and mashed across the images. Debbie pointed out that many of those who are chronic offenders also have brain injuries (and addictions) – but she also argues that our current approach to supporting marginalized people is making life here intolerable.

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: