A Downtown Eastside organization that advocates on behalf of low-income people including drug users is requesting city council reject spending more than $420,000 to open a community policing centre in Strathcona and boost funding to 10 existing centres.
In a report going before council Tuesday that outlines the city’s strategy to combat the drug overdose crisis, city staff recommends that $100,000 be spent to set up a community policing centre in a yet-to-be-determined location in Strathcona.
An additional $128,200 is requested to fund the centre’s annual operating costs. Staff also recommends spending $200,000 per year to increase funding to 10 existing policing centres for a total tab of $428,200.
Maria Wallstam, the coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, said the $428,200 would be better spent on directly fighting the overdose crisis and believes the funding of community policing centres is a separate issue and should come from a separate budget.
“It should not be taken out of the money that’s set aside and earmarked for mitigating the fentanyl crisis,” said Wallstam, who suggested redirecting the money to fund the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users to provide more training, education and outreach to drug users. She argued city staff has included funding for policing centres in its recommendations to placate property owners worried about a decrease in property values related to the presence of drug users.
The city report said a policing centre in Strathcona would act as a hub for residents’ public safety concerns and provide space for volunteers to coordinate programs, street patrols and education for residents and businesses.
A police officer would be assigned to the centre to work with a range of people, including the homeless and drug users, said the report, which noted the importance of volunteers in identifying discarded needles and to spread awareness on issues such as tainted drugs being sold in the community.
“They can also assist people who may be using drugs alone on the street and call for assistance in the event of an overdose,” the report said. “Having these extra eyes and ears on the streets will assist in keeping the community and drug users safe.”
The Strathcona Residents Association supports the need for a policing centre in the community. Dan Jackson, a council member of the residents’ association, said he understands the aim of opening a policing centre in the community is to have a place for residents to meet and best respond to issues of safety.
“It’s not about us trying to build a wall, it’s really about us trying to have an open communication with everybody,” said Jackson, noting the diversity of the community. “There’s a lot of seniors, a lot of people with kids and I think to be able to have a mechanism where we can come together as a community and address those concerns is a good thing.”
Vancouver police’s most recent crime statistics show that Strathcona in November 2016 had five robberies, 42 assaults, 22 burglaries, 47 reported thefts from vehicles, three reported sex offences and six stolen cars.
The city has a budget of $3.5 million this year to cover costs related to the overdose drug crisis, which saw 914 people die in B.C. last year, with 215 of those in Vancouver. The majority of the deaths were linked to the deadly synthetic narcotic, fentanyl.
The $3.5 million became available after a majority of council agreed in December to increase property taxes by 0.5 per cent – an increase commonly referred to as “the fentanyl tax.” In the report going before council, staff recommends spending $2 million of the $3.5 million on a package of initiatives, including a Strathcona policing centre, increasing funding to 10 existing policing centres and expanding naloxone training for city employees.
The biggest cost is $1.9 million to add an additional three-person medic unit to Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. Firefighters operating out of three fire halls in and around the Downtown Eastside responded to 2,914 overdose incidents in 2016, a 131 per cent increase over the previous year.
Wallstam said adding more firefighters and expanding naloxone training makes sense and is directly associated to saving lives of overdose victims. She is supported in her views by Laura Shaver, the president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, who continues to see drug users die at an unprecedented rate in Vancouver and rest of the province.
The public health emergency, she said, is what should be the focus of council’s spending this year. Opening a policing centre in Strathcona and boosting funding of 10 other centres will do nothing help those people most in need, she said.
Shaver said a policing centre’s volunteers would just end up contacting the drug users’ network to resolve any issues related to drug use. Her organization, she said, is already operating an “overdose prevention site,” collecting discarded needles and looking out for tainted drugs.
“Why not just put more money to make these programs better than put money into something else to start a whole new thing where it’s just going to overlap?” said Shaver, emphasizing how a new community policing centre is a separate issue from the drug death crisis. “Sorry, it sounds really bad but it’s almost as if everybody is trying to almost cash in on the fentanyl crisis for all these new money things like a centre.”
Council is expected to hear a staff presentation on the report Tuesday and listen to speakers Wednesday before it decides where the money should be spent.