Submitted by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, Downtown Victoria Business Association, and the Urban Development Institute – Capital Region.
There has been a lot of talk lately about Downtown Victoria. Who hasn’t chatted about downtown issues with work colleagues, or on the sidelines of our kid’s soccer games? We’re certainly seeing it in our news scrolls and online commentary.
Some of the talk is positive. Greater Victoria often ranks highly in lists of desirable places to live, work and visit. Our region has a sterling reputation — especially to people who aren’t from here. The climate is the mildest in Canada, and we’re the main city on an Island oasis covered in magnificent rainforests and facing the vast, enigmatic Pacific Ocean. There are an unlimited number of reasons for locals to get to know their downtown again and use their experience to amplify all the amazing reasons we are so lucky to have a world-class centre in our region.
But it would seem many of us believe our own bad publicity. Have we taken on an inferiority complex?
Unfortunately, a lot of what we’re hearing about downtown has become disparaging. That’s a concern, especially in today’s world where it’s easy to become trapped in an echo chamber of our own making. There is a cognitive dissonance between our real-world experiences and the stories we hear about property crime and random violence, or of people struggling to survive a life on the street. It’s a discourse that ends up frightening ourselves and each other and makes us ask why nobody is doing anything about it.
Crime and violence are real but not rampant as some would have us believe. And at the root of these issues are housing and mental illness.
Of course, as with many complex challenges, if there was a simple solution it would have been implemented by now. The reality is that to fix downtown, we first and foremost need to decide that we want to invest in change and then be honest about where things have gone wrong.
The most important rethink needed is that Downtown is somehow the sole responsibility of the City of Victoria. Our arbitrary municipal borders are absurd to outsiders because they don’t reflect how we live our lives. Few of us notice when we’re crossing lines drawn on maps as we commute to work and school or go about visiting parks or do our shopping.
Downtown Victoria is a place that belongs to everyone who lives in the region. It is, in fact, our collective regional downtown. Even if we don’t experience it daily, it’s always there for us. It’s where we go when entertaining out-of-towners or when we’re celebrating important occasions. Thousands of people come downtown every single day and have fantastic experiences.
When we’re out in the city, letting your hair down to have fun should not make you a target. Businesses, their staff and the public all support the role that our police play in building safe communities and neighbourhoods. Stepping up police patrols and increasing bylaw enforcement are part of the solution, and areas that can be addressed by the Police Board and the City of Victoria. The other parts of the solution require the provincial and federal governments to invest in the infrastructure and workforce needed to deal with repeat offenders, and to help people with profound mental illness and addiction challenges. We need to house them and help them on the path to recovery. We urge the provincial and the federal governments to act quickly to deliver these services needed to improve the lives of people on the street, which, in turn, will also improve conditions for businesses and their staff who encounter these issues every day.
Much of that talk has tried to address the growing visibility of people in distress on our streets and sidewalks. There is no denying there are challenges in Greater Victoria’s downtown core, as there are in every North American city. We are a compassionate community, and, regardless of political stripes, no one wants to see human beings suffering on city streets. The solution is exceptionally complex and difficult. We need the provincial government to accelerate housing in all areas of the province and also to massively increase support for mental health care and addiction treatment. Let’s keep moving forward with programs such as complex care and find a way to compassionately house and help people who, through illness or addiction, are unable to care for themselves.
Homelessness isn’t unique to Victoria. In many West Coast cities, the situation is much more dire. Let’s learn from those jurisdictions so we don’t repeat their mistakes. The ongoing opioid crisis is devastating, but we need to face it head on and not retreat.
We need a society-wide commitment to invest in funding the specialized roles required to help people when they need it — not months later when it’s often too late.
We are currently unaware of any meaningful plans or actions being taken by the provincial or federal governments to directly address these Downtown issues. This reinforces the emerging public narrative that our downtown is in disarray and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Faith in our elected leaders is being lost. We are requesting more open and collaborative dialogue so we can come up with a plan together to start the undoubtedly long journey of solving these issues.
Also, if you are someone who worked Downtown before the pandemic, don’t you wonder about the people who operate businesses you used to frequent? How are they doing? Maybe it’s time to check in and say hello again.
This column originally ran in the May 18 edition of the Times Colonist.