A little over a week ago, a dozen-or-so trees and bushes were removed from the Banff Trail LRT station by City of Calgary crews at the request of Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong.
Approximately four weeks ago Coun. Wong, along with members of Calgary Transit, walked the northwest LRT line to examine safety around LRT stations.
“We took a walk from Banff Trail to Lions Park to highlight exactly what concerns the community had relative to encampments, whether it’s drug use, or whether it was the people that were hiding and doing drugs or other things in the bushes,” he said.
“When we did the walk, a lot of the community wanted to say ‘let us do it, let us cut down now, because this is our greatest concern—we don’t know what’s behind the bush or under the trees.'”
The trees were removed by Calgary Parks employees, as a result of those conversations. The trees and bushes that are adjacent to the station and Capitol Hill Crescent are city-owned.
The City of Calgary declined to answer questions about the removal of the trees, or the city’s crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) strategy. The city responded to LiveWire Calgary’s request, writing that there was no overall strategy, and directed questions back to Coun. Wong’s office.
Residents have asked for action
Residents of the Banff Trail community have raised issues surrounding the LRT station for several years. Romer Bergado, who lives directly across from the station, said that the problems at the station have increased since the pandemic began.
“So I saw people taking drugs, and there’s also life and death situations right there for overdoses, and the mess, the fights, and everything like that,” he said.
“I feel so sorry for those people who took advantage of the bushes there and everything to do their stuff to make them happy. But being a resident here, I am not so OK with that considering my safety, the safety of everybody—the safety of the residents of this community.”
He said that especially felt sorry for the young children he saw during the winter. The parents were using the LRT shelter for warmth while taking drugs.
Bergado pointed to several locations along the Capitol Hill Crescent tree line where people had been creating encampments. Post removal of the trees, he said, he’s only seen at most a single person using at the station. Before, he would see up to 15 or more individuals at a time.
He said that he hopes the people who have moved on, now that the station has a clear line of sight to homes in the area, will get the help they need.
Need to support vulnerable population
Coun. Wong said that he wasn’t just concerned with the residents along the LRT line. He was also concerned about the vulnerable population that had been using the station.
“All councillors are very concerned about safety on transit lines. We need to take care of both the safety of the people that ride and use the lines, but we also have to take care of safety of the vulnerable population that are using this as a last resort, literally,” he said.
“We can’t look down on them, but rather looking at them to provide the support they really need.”
Other initiatives, including tree cutting, increased transit police and security officer patrols, are coming to Lions Park said Coun. Wong. The patrol areas have been expanded an additional quarter kilometre on either side of the LRT station.
“It’s not just the station itself, it’s the park behind on the south side, and it’s also across the roadway, across 14 Avenue where Louise Library is, where the Briar Hill Community Center is, where the playground is,” he said.
The work on the trees and bushes would be performed by city staff already tasked to maintaining city assets. The patrol work is being paid in part out of an April request for additional police and security officers. It’s also coming from federal Covid-19 funding, Wong said.
Chaz Smith, CEO for BeTheChangeYYC, an organization that performs outreach within the homeless community, said that all communities in Calgary are struggling with the effects of seeing poverty directly through things like rough sleeping.
“We’re seeing a trend of city councillors and administration looking for ways to address communities’ immediate concerns,” he said.
“And I think that what we’re seeing is a symptom of a much larger issue, which is the fact that we don’t have the supports for housing, and mental health, and detox that we really need in order to address the root issue that we’re seeing here.”
Banff Trail issues dispersed to other areas of the city
Smith said that the individuals who were staying at the Banff Trail LRT will have likely moved on to another area of the city, and possibly another LRT station. And whether anyone is actually safer on the line, both commuters and homeless alike, is a concern he shares.
“Safety, of course, is important for everyone accessing transit. When we have a vulnerable population, I often wonder about their safety as well,” he said.
Paradoxically, the increased visibility at LRT stations can afford greater safety for those using drugs or sleeping rough. They have charging devices and they provide heat. The stations are monitored with CCTV systems and are regularly patrolled by officers. In the event of an overdose, help might be accessible in comparison with somewhere more discreet.
Right now, said Smith, of the people his outreach team is connecting with, many are camping outside of places like LRT stations and detox centres just to have the opportunity for one of those beds.
“That’s the symptom that we’re seeing throughout the city on the train lines, where we know that there are very practical ways of tackling these problems and supporting the vulnerable population,” Smith said.
“Ultimately, I think this is a bit of a policy failure when it comes to governments not really creating the type of programming that people need, and want.”
Tree removal is direct action: Smith
With the removal of the trees at the Banff Trail LRT station, Smith said that Coun. Wong was likely addressing the issue in the most direct way possible. That’s given the limitations of the city in addressing areas within provincial jurisdiction.
“It can become very difficult when we’re a city to create the systemic changes that really need to happen to support these vulnerable folks on the street,” said Smith.
“What it sounds like is he’s looking for an immediate way within his power to try and address the community’s concerns, but ultimately, this is a housing and mental health issue.”