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Security worries in Gorge-Burnside as thefts and vandalism spike near hotels for homeless

Some businesses in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood are hiring private security firms and installing upgraded camera systems in an effort to combat vandalism, trespassing and drug use in the area.
The Comfort Inn and Suites at 3020 Blanshard St. was purchased by the province for $18.5 million and converted to housing for homeless people.

Some businesses in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood are hiring private security firms and installing upgraded camera systems in an effort to combat vandalism, trespassing and drug use in the area.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Love Dodd, owner of Dodd’s Furniture on Finlayson Street, a few blocks from the temporary supportive housing facility at the former Comfort Inn and Suites at 3020 Blanshard St. The hotel was purchased by the province for $18.5 million and houses 90 people previously living in tents at Topaz Park or on Pandora Avenue.

The furniture store has hired clean-up crews to remove needles, feces and garbage strewn around the property, Dodd said.

The business rented delivery trucks after the windows of four of its truck, parked outside the store’s warehouse on Garbally Road, were smashed, he said.

One of the six recently installed security cameras was smashed and the wiring pulled out, damage that cost $3,000, Dodd said.

Dodd is concerned about the safety of his staff. Some people have defecated in the bushes while looking in the window and smiling at female staff, he said. Dodd is also concerned customers won’t want to shop in the store if they feel unsafe.

A health worker in a medical facility above the furniture store was startled to find someone had accessed the stairwell after hours, he said.

Dodd said he’s been in touch with businesses at a plaza on Nanaimo Street who are talking to their property management company about hiring private security for the block.

The windows have been smashed at TJ’s The Kiddies Store; at Java Jo’s Cafe, the window of the front door and cash register was smashed on July 11.

Early Tuesday morning, just after midnight, Victoria police were called to a “multi-unit temporary housing facility” in the 1900-block of Douglas Street for a report of a man pointing a gun at people and uttering threats. Paul’s Motor Inn is at 1900 Douglas Street and houses 75 people who were previously without homes. The province bought Paul’s Motor Inn in June for about $15 million to add to its stock of temporary supportive housing.

Victoria police spokesman Const. Cam MacIntyre said police arrested a man who is facing charges of assault with a weapon and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose. The weapon was an imitation firearm resembling an assault rifle but MacIntyre said such replicas are very convincing to officers arriving on scene.

Lindsay Price, owner of All About Hue Hair Design salon, has moved out of the former Comfort Inn, where she and six employees had been based.

“The whole area is just awful now,” she said.

A nearby property owner has hired security for their retail area, Price said.

She is working out of her home, waiting for work to complete on a new salon at Admirals Walk shopping centre, which she’s hoping will open by August.

“My stress level is so high,” she said. “I’m out a ton of money.”

Price said she received an eviction notice from the previous owner to move out by the end of May. She figures that was prompted by the owner’s plan to sell.

After closing the business due to COVID-19, Price planned to open for the last two weeks of May. That reopening didn’t happen.

The day the province announced that they had purchased the Comfort Inn, clients cancelled because they felt unsafe, she said.

Price figures that B.C. Housing did not know that she was a tenant in the building. Construction workers arrived to board up windows, saying it was for her safety, she said.

Shortly after tenants started moving into the hotel, a fire broke out, resulting in her salon being flooded and equipment damaged, Price said. She has filed an insurance claim.

Darryl Wilson, general manager of the Days Inn Victoria Uptown at 229 Gorge Rd. East, said crime and social disorder in the area is not new but he’s seen a “big degradation of the area” since people moved into the Travelodge at 123 Gorge Rd. East and the Howard Johnson at 310 Gorge Rd. East. Both hotels are being leased by B.C. Housing to get vulnerable people off the streets in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose crisis.

“There’s domestic disputes, noise issues and of course there’s sirens going off on all hours of the day,” he said.

Wilson said employees are constantly cleaning up needles and he’s concerned a child or pet staying at the hotel could come across the sharps. Some guests have stated they don’t feel safe in the area and that’s cost the hotel business, Wilson said.

“We have a lot of concern and compassion for the individuals who have been brought into the neighbourhood,” he said. “But the neighbourhood has been left to fend for itself, both the businesses and the neighbours.”

Wilson said there were already many supportive housing facilities or shelters in the Burnside Gorge area such as Rock Bay Landing, the former Super 8 motel at 2915 Douglas St., and the former Tally Ho motel at 3020 Douglas St. The Victoria Cool Aid Society has received approval to build 154 units of affordable housing at the former Tally Ho motel site.

“So bringing those tenters into the neighbourhood has compounded what was already an existing problem that was borne by the area businesses,” he said. B.C. Housing has not lived up to its promise to distribute supportive housing across the region, Wilson said, and the high concentration of people with addiction and mental health issue is not helpful to their recovery.

“Throwing all these people of varying needs into this one-shoes-fits-all solution is not appropriate.”

B.C. Housing has increased private security in the neighbourhood following several high-profile police incidents involving firearms or replica firearms.

On June 30, the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team surrounded the former Comfort Inn and seized a firearm and ammunition from one of the units. The incident prompted Our Place Society, which manages the supportive housing facility, to secure the hotel’s windows to ensure weapons or banned items cannot be smuggled in.

That same day, the tactical team engaged in a standoff with some residents of the Travelodge after reports that a man fired a handgun at another person and entered a suite in the building. Police seized a compressed-air-powered handgun.

Grant McKenzie, director of communications for Our Place Society, said regular meetings are held with neighbours and businesses to address concerns.

“We actually have a good relationship with neighbouring businesses,” he said. There is little residential housing in the immediate area. “We definitely try to respond to people’s concerns right away. We want to be the best neighbour that we can be.”

Two fires broke out shortly after tenants moved into the former hotel. One was caused by a malfunction of a battery charger and it is unclear what started the other, McKenzie said.

The hotel is staffed around the clock by outreach workers, nurses from the Victoria Cool Aid Society, and an overdose prevention unit under AVI Health and Community Services, McKenzie said. Private security patrols the area and no visitors are allowed, he said.

Already, Our Place staff has been talking to some of tenants about going through a detox program and from there participating in the two-year New Roads Therapeutic Community program in View Royal, McKenzie said.

“The big thing we have really noticed is you can actually see a physical change in people, then they start to get healthy,” he said. On the streets “they are constantly battling for survival every day.”

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