Fran Stirling said she feels abandoned by the Municipality of North Cowichan and other authorities.
Stirling has been a resident of Lewis Street for 14 years and said when she moved there, it was a blue collar, working class area which saw few social problems.
But she said with the opening of the nearby Warmland shelter shortly after she moved in, the neighbourhood began changing for the worse with homeless people showing up in big numbers.
Stirling acknowledged that the major sweep by RCMP and bylaw officers from North Cowichan in October, 2019, to clean up the area and urge the homeless and others who gravitate there to move on had results, but she fears the situation in the neighbourhood is slowly returning to what it was before then.
“There’s no comparison now to what it was, but there’s still vandalism to cars in parking lots and screaming and fighting and there’s not a lot being done about it,” she said.
“This has been in our faces for 14 years now and I’m on a mission to see that something is done.”
Stirling said she has no car and walks everywhere she needs to go, even though she has mobility issues.
She said she needs to walk on sidewalks to provide stability and finds it very difficult to step down on roadways while getting around obstacles on sidewalks.
“People camp on the sidewalks on Lewis Street and, while I do have a heart and sympathize with their situations, I can’t get by the tents,” Stirling said.
“I’ve asked them to move but one girl said she was there first and for me to go around, while another time, a man cursed at me and told me to leave him alone and walk on the road. I’m getting fed up with this and feel trapped in my home. It’s not all of them that do this, just a group of about 12 people.”
Stirling said she wrote a letter to North Cowichan Mayor Rob Douglas and council asking that steps be taken to help the situation in the neighbourhood.
She said she frequently calls the municipality’s bylaw officers and the RCMP in an effort to have something done, but they are limited as to what they can do.
“I understand the complications and I’d support the establishment of a facility with wraparound services that some of these people can be brought to involuntarily, if need be, but then it would become a human rights issue,” she said.
“But the Warmland shelter and the Wellness and Recovery Centre [which houses the overdose prevention site] on York Road are just band-aid places that have no mandate to deal with the problems on the street. These people can be a danger to themselves and occasionally the public so I think the solution is to open up the involuntary facility.”
Stirling said all she wants is to have peace and quiet and a normal place to call home.
She said she can’t move to another area because of the skyrocketing rents that she can’t afford.
“Where are my rights?” she asked.
“It’s so frustrating that nobody seems to be doing much about this.”
Mayor Rob Douglas said he has been in contact with Stirling and bylaw enforcement in the Lewis Street area has been increased, and the RCMP have stepped up patrols as well.
He said a location for the daytime warming centre for homeless people that the Cowichan Housing Association is proposing has yet to be finalized, but once it is established, it could help alleviate the problem.
“Once the warming and cooling centre has been set up, it hopefully will pull people away from that area to a spot where they can warm up or cool down (depending on the time of the year) and receive services,” Douglas said.
“This is a top issue in the community since I was elected mayor and it comes up daily. Parents who have students in nearby schools are concerned and business owners there are struggling. The municipality has some tools to help deal with, but we have limited power.”
Douglas said, ultimately, dealing with homeless issues is the jurisdiction of senior levels of government and North Cowichan has been lobbying them for more assistance.
He said North Cowichan has seen some progress with the senior levels of government stepping in to help, but the municipality needs to keep the pressure on them.
But Douglas pointed out that the challenges around homeless issues is not specific to the Lewis Street area and the Cowichan Valley.
“All municipalities and jurisdictions on the Island need to work together and have one unified voice in dealing with senior levels of government on these issues,” he said.
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