Business owners, landlord representatives, and residents of Kensington and surrounding downtown communities expressed frustrations about no longer feeling safe at their homes and places of work during a Jan. 16 town hall.
The event, held by the Kensington BIA, was put on to connect Alpha House, the Calgary Police Service, Bylaw and Transit, and Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong with members of the community.
“I think everyone’s feeling frustrated with the increasing social disorder, and I think what people heard on both sides—on all sides—was that everybody’s trying really hard,” said Kensington BIA Executive Director Annie MacInnis.
“It’s a really big problem and I think it was good for the residents and the businesses to hear how much work is being done behind the scenes… to try to deal with this really important issue.”
Among the concerns raised by attendees, and addressed by panelists, were safety and disorder on and at Calgary Transit LRT stations and trains, open drug use near Kensington businesses, perceived safety declines along the river pathway system, and a general rise in social disorder.
Coun. Wong said that he would be taking those issues back to council to ensure that resources would be directed appropriately.
“The things that we heard here are the things that we definitely want to take back to council members,” Coun. Wong said.
“But more importantly than council members, to our administration, to ensure that they understand where the priorities, resources, programs, and plans need to be spent.”
All of the panelists emphasized that the crime and disorder issues facing Kensington, and Calgary as a whole, are part of complex social issue trends that are not unique to Calgary.
Not always obvious to community members what is going on behind the scene
Calgary Police Superintendent Cliff O’Brien said that while the efforts of police are not always obvious or known to community members, they are actively working to address crime in the community.
“There’s always things going on to address the crime issues, whether that’s plainclothes officers that are surveillance officers, or whether that’s uniformed officers from various units,” Supt. O’Brien said.
“In Calgary, we have 1,000 predatory criminals that are walking around. We have units to go out and make sure that they’re abiding by their court curfews and court conditions.”
He said that as a service they’re also working with partners such as Alpha House and The Alex to stop people from getting into positions where they commit crimes in the first place.
“We’re going to see what sticks, what works, what is the good outcome, and if it doesn’t work we’ll pivot and we’ll try something different,” he said.
Superintendent O’Brien also addressed the concerns of town hall attendees about not having enough police members to suppress crime.
At issue, he said, was the difficulty that the service has been facing in recruiting new officers to fill gaps as other officers leave the service or retire.
Another issue is the lack of remand space for offenders awaiting trial. That centre, built in 1993 with a capacity of around 400 prisoners, has been frequently overcrowded.
District 3 Community Resource Sgt. Dale Gorrill said during the evening that the centre has far surpassed that.
“Currently there’s 900 or so triple bunking, they’re putting them in the hallway, and the courts know this. It’s getting tougher and tougher to keep people in jail because they’ve got no place to be put, and that’s just one of many realities,” he said.
Improvements to Transit safety on the way
Sgt. Ian Stewart, a peace officer with Calgary Transit and Public Safety, said that significant security improvements are underway, including the hiring of more peace officers by the City of Calgary, and the contracting out of commercial security firm MacCon to have security staff at LRT stations.
He addressed one resident’s fears of the LRT line, which that resident called a rolling meth lab, by saying they have long-term plans in place. Work is also underway to build trust with Calgary’s homeless population to address issues.
He said that Calgary Transit is well aware of the current issues that riders face.
“Yes, we all want to see something done right away, but dealing with some of these people takes trust and time to get their buy-in before we can start getting into the helpful appropriate help that they need,” Stewart said.
“Does that alleviate your fears because you want something done right now? No. But we do have other strategies in place for longer-term action.”
He said that their work as part of a combined operations team is starting to get individuals into housing, into treatment, and away from LRT stations and trains.
Calgary Transit has also implemented a discrete safety dispatch texting service, where riders can text 74100 to have officers dispatched without having to make a phone call.
Discomfort doesn’t always mean crime
Another issue raised by some residents and business owners in the community was the fear of the local homeless population that lives in the community.
“Sometimes we’re talking about the unhoused population, and people see an unhoused person and they think, ‘well, there’s potential for violence,'” Supt. O’Brien said.
“Just because somebody’s unhoused does not mean that they’re going to be violent, and I get it, some of these perceptions are reality, but what we’re seeing statistically is not so.”
He used the example of how the police are not seeing violence emanating from homeless camps, where residents of tents and shelters go out and attack people.
“It’s trying to balance dealing with the perception of safety, or are we dealing with actual safety,” he said.
“And just trying to find that balance is so difficult for communities, because if they feel unsafe, we need to help with that. But moving an unhoused person on may not necessarily fix that problem.”
During the evening a trio of people from the homeless community spoke to the crowd, expressing that they themselves are not the source of crime in the community. They, like other residents, are trying to work with police to identify offenders that are equally unsafe to them as to others.
MacInnis said that she had invited them earlier on in the day to attend.
“I feel gratified that they came, that they sat through and that they spoke their piece, too,” she said.
Sunnyside accounts for two per cent of all calls for service from the Calgary police.
In 2022, there were 30 assaults in the community, 6 other non-domestic violent incidents, and 4 street robberies. In comparison, the Downtown Commercial Core across the river had 315 assaults, 76 other non-domestic violent incidents, and 59 street robberies.
Destigmatization and crime prevention go hand in hand
Coun. Wong said that there was a need to both destigmatize homeless Calgarians, but also for community members to establish their own zones of personal comfort.
“We saw three individuals here today: Don’t stigmatize them, don’t classify them, don’t just say that there because they’re wearing something you’re not, that you wouldn’t wear yourself, that they’re also bad people,” he said.
“Compassion is really the critical point.”
He said though, that safety continues to be a major priority for him in 2023. That means finding ways of working with law enforcement to ensure that residents feel safe and are safe.
“I think the other thing is we just want to ensure that people feel that they can enjoy life the way they want to enjoy it,” he said.
Part of that would be continuing to work towards crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), ensuring that there are clear lines of sight around walkways and LRT stations, securing waste bins in alleyways as a deterrent to people collecting bottles and cans, and ensuring that areas are well lit.
Superintendent O’Brien said that safety is a community issue, and that police need community support in order to make those same communities safe.
“We can’t help what we don’t know,” he said.
“We just had a call on the way down here, and it was a community person that went ‘that doesn’t look right.’ and called. And sure enough it was a fairly significant issue that was going on, and we had police and fire that were able to go and deal with it.”
Among the other requests was from Alpha House Director of Programs and Services, Charlene Wilson, to call the DOAP team. She said that in 2022, the team transported individuals 29,000 times.