Will Arnold offers a grim assessment of the community he has fallen in love with.
“They used to call it Drunken Duncan. Now it’s Druggie Duncan,” Arnold told a gathering of about 20 community leaders, business people and police who assembled early one morning at his Experience Cycling store on the Trans Canada Highway.
Every morning for the last several weeks, Arnold and a handful of friends and supporters have been doing a patrol of the area. What they uncover is disturbing.
“We find needles, human feces, graffiti and all kinds of garbage. It’s unbelievable,” says Arnold.
“I’m dealing with this every day. Last night there were two homeless people shooting up. And there was a woman sleeping in front of the store.”
The early morning patrols are dangerous, inspiring a number of friends to join Arnold as he makes his rounds.
“I’ve had a knife pulled on me and a needle pressed against my throat, threatening me with the AIDS virus,” Arnold told the gathering.
“My wife is afraid. ‘You’re going to get knifed one night,’ she says. She’s scared. But I’ve got to do this.”
One recent morning, Arnold invited North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring, Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples, staff from the municipality and city, Insp. Chris Bear of the Duncan Cowichan RCMP, MLA Sonia Furstenau, School District Chair Candace Spilsbury, property and business owners from the immediate area and others to get a first-hand view of the troubling situation of drug abuse, crime and homelessness.
Don Hatton, who runs an insurance business on the highway, has been struggling with the problem of crime in the area for years. He has done more than his share of proactive work to clean up the neighbourhood over the last few years, but sees it getting worse every day.
“You have to separate the homeless from criminals,” he pointed out. “The bad people, the criminals are mixing in with them. The criminals are hiding with homeless people.
“The criminal element is taking advantage of your bleeding hearts.”
With the area’s reputation and appearance being tarnished by the criminal activity, open drug use and graffiti, Hatton warns there will be financial consequences.
“Insurance rates go by postal code,” he explains. “It’s going to be an economic development problem. There will be businesses that can’t get insurance.”
Ann Buttner-Danyliw agrees the financial cost is substantial and she feels for friends who have property for rent in the area.
“That’s my motivation for being here,” she acknowledges. “There have been for lease signs up for months and it’s tough to find tenants with people sleeping along the back alley.”
Insp. Chris Bear of the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP told the meeting he’d like to do more but his options are limited.
“We are short-staffed, I think everyone knows that, and we have to pay attention to the busy areas,” Bear explained.
“We know the homeless and the criminal element, but we have to deal with facts. And being homeless is not a crime.”
Bear said it’s often challenging for his officers when dealing with criminals who are dealing drugs in the community. Arresting dealers and charging them doesn’t often bring the desired result for law enforcement.
“Most of the time they’re out walking the streets and doing business again,” Bear said. “And that’s tough because we know drugs are killing people.”
Arnold could be forgiven if he’s lost track of how much he’s invested in trying to keep his building and parking area free of graffiti and other unsightly elements. He’s also spent $25,000 on security cameras. He estimates he’s $60,000 or more out of pocket and the figure is likely higher.
“I love this community. I came here in 1987 to turn this business around and I never left. I have nothing against street people but this has affected my business immensely,” Arnold says.
“This is not a political thing for me. I’m not looking for a platform. I’d love for us as a community to come up with creative solutions.
“The community is suffering, people are suffering.”
Arnold says he’ll continue to paint over graffiti — often used by dealers to mark territory or give specific messages to addicts — and do what he can to help the marginalized members of the community.
“We’re not going to solve the opioid crisis, but this is my way of not giving up,” he says.
A number of people spoke up, frustrated by the lack of action by local government and the failure of the needle exchange program to function as it should, requiring addicts to return used needles in exchange for new ones.
“I’m worried for my guys that they’re going to get poked (by a discarded, used syringe),” Arnold adds.
“We need to come together as a community. We do come together. Look at the Hospice fundraising or the BC Summer Games. We can do it.”