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Robert Barron column: More work needed to deal with homeless, opioid issues

Social issues won’t be resolved until senior levels of government acknowledge responsibilities
Robert’s column

One can hardly feel anything but sympathy for Fran Stirling, a senior resident of the troubled Lewis Street area who feels trapped in her home due to the many social issues plaguing the neighbourhood.

When I visited her a couple of weeks ago, Stirling said 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.

Her fears are apparently justified by the facts as the local RCMP are reporting that there was a 49 per cent increase in criminal activity in the area in 2022.

It should come as no surprise that this increase in criminal activity began shortly after the Overdose Prevention Site moved to nearby York Road in 2021, which added to the problems related to the many homeless people who already congregated there to be close to the services offered by the Warmland shelter.

It would be easy to point the finger of blame at these two facilities for having such a negative impact on that neighbourhood but, in truth, these organizations are doing their best to cope with an increasingly overwhelming situation they have no real control over.

Dealing with the social problems related to the opioid crisis, mental illness and skyrocketing rents and mortgages during the ongoing housing shortage are not the responsibility of Warmland or the OPS site, but senior levels of government who seem to have pretty much shirked their mandate to deal with them in recent years.

“Where are my rights?” Stirling asked me during my visit.

“It’s so frustrating that nobody seems to be doing much about this.”

But as one part of the highway corridor seems to be sinking further into social turmoil, other areas are seeing an improvement.

David Kim, owner of Madrone Environmental Services Ltd., told me recently that moving his business from Canada Avenue to 470 Trans-Canada Hwy., which is in the middle of the highway corridor, was the best decision he ever made for the company.

That section of Duncan has long been notorious for drug use, homeless people and crime, but the situation seems to have at least stabilized, if not improved, since the OPS site moved to York Street from Trunk Road, which is just a couple of blocks.

The facts bear this out as the RCMP are reporting that criminal activity in that area of the highway corridor decreased in 2022.

What also helps is the dedication of many of the businesses in the Whistler Street area who are proactive in dealing with the homeless and organize regular clean-ups of their storefronts to make the area as clean and attractive as they can.

One of the leaders of this initiative is Will Arnold, owner of Experience Cycling, who told me that the dedication of the business community has been paying dividends.

He said he still sees drug use in the area, but the instances of graffiti and vandalism have gone down.

“All the businesses communicate with each other and work together to invest in the buildings and clean up the streets,” Arnold said.

“Things are getting better here because each business is not on its own and we try to make everyone feel that they are part of a network that looks out for each other. We’re a real community here.”

Ultimately, however, the social issues along the corridor won’t be fully resolved until senior levels of government begin to acknowledge their responsibilities.

Rob Douglas, the mayor of North Cowichan, in which Lewis Street is located, said that the municipality has been lobbying Ottawa and Victoria for some time for help in dealing with the issues, and while this has had some successes, he admits there still may be a long road ahead.

“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.

So, instead of just being frustrated with the situation, I’d encourage people to reach out to their MPs and MLAs and let your voices be heard.

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Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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