Reports of people feeling unsafe while walking downtown have been shared anecdotally among friends and colleagues in the past few months, reported to the Downtown Edmonton Community League and other organizations, and also to the police as the stats below will show. Lockdown measures, working from home, and generally less people out and about in the core has led to an uptick in reports of crimes of opportunity on the one hand, and on the other hand, there is increased visibility of those suffering mental health crises, addictions and opioid use, and a lack of sustainable housing and shelter for the most vulnerable.
Fardoussa Omar has been Safety Chair of DECL for three years and says they’ve always had complaints about safety in the core but agrees that COVID is exacerbating things for those who live and work downtown. She is also concerned about those who are dealing with addictions and mental health issues experiencing targeted crime.
“The folks who live and work downtown are coming into contact with the unhoused and then also the unhoused are coming into more volatility of just being on the street. I think when everybody’s mandated to work from home or when businesses are mandated to shut down, you really notice who doesn’t have a home and who doesn’t have a space to be and some of the challenges they have to cope with,” Omar says.
“I was walking down my alleyway and I noticed one of our unhoused neighbours in a lot of pain and he was screaming out for help. I called 211 and they said I have to call the police because it looks like he’s in a medical crisis and will need an ambulance. So I ended up doing that and after the incident was resolved the police officer called back and said my unhoused neighbour was bear sprayed by someone walking by.”
Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee talked about concerns with safety in downtown on Facebook Live on October 7 and said there are two major issues happening that require different strategies: crime and social disorder.
“They’re not the same conversation. We’re going to need to change how we deploy downtown to get some better outcomes,” McFee said.“We need to rethink the whole approach downtown. And let me just contextualize what I mean by that. We have focused as a city, and not just as a police service, on housing. Housing is an important ingredient [but housing] isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s the destination. We’re dealing with a major addictions problem. A major, major addictions problem.”
Year-to-date the number of safety occurrences Edmonton Police have dealt with downtown has increased 3%, while citywide they’ve actually decreased 4.3%. There’s been an increase of 14.4% of assault overall: 9.7% increase of assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, 12.9% increase in aggravated assault, 27.3% of assault. These numbers have actually decreased in other parts of the city. Family violence, street disorder, and mental health issues have also increased.
These numbers are significant and need to be addressed. Working as a community, the hope is that solutions can be found to make folks feel safe being downtown, while also putting essential services in place to separate those who are committing crime from those who are in a tough spot and need help with addictions, housing, and mental health.