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Victoria church builds wall to keep out drug users, homeless campers

A concrete-block wall and a black metal fence are going up in front of Central Baptist Church, at 823 Pandora Ave., to keep drug dealers, drug users and homeless campers away.
Workers construct a wall made of concrete blocks at the entrance to Central Baptist Church on Pandora Avenue.

A concrete-block wall and a black metal fence are going up in front of Central Baptist Church, at 823 Pandora Ave., to keep drug dealers, drug users and homeless campers away.

“The idea is to reduce crime and make it a safer space for everyone,” said Pastor Barton Priebe.

Central Baptist has struggled for years over what to do with a covered entrance area. The street community gathers on its steps each night, using it as a shelter and meeting area. Priebe said church staff pick up used needles and garbage daily from the front of the building.

“Police told us this is one of the most prominent areas for drugs in the city,” he said, noting the church has been in the downtown core since the 1920s and wants to stay.

“We’re committed to it. We know there are many challenges and we’re trying to take a positive approach by volunteering at organizations that help people [on the streets].”

Victoria police helped the church identify ways to alter the area to discourage crime. The new wall with a fence on top will block access to a covered area next to the front doors. Garden plots will be installed behind the wall. All the work is being paid for by the church.

Rev. Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society charity said he’s disappointed to see the church shut out the 25 to 30 people who seek shelter there each night.

“They are the most destitute, needy and suffering,” said Tysick, who for years has brought coffee, muffins and supplies to people outside the church in the mornings.

“I get it. I see both sides. Sometimes it’s disgusting what the church has to put up with,” Tysick said.

“[But] we Christians are led not by suffering, but by the gifts of God … Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Christ gave his life for us, for God’s sake.”

Tysick said he wished the church had reached out to the community for solutions and that building a wall will just push the problem to another corner for another resident to deal with.

About noon Wednesday, passersby stopped to comment about the wall.

“Where will we sit now?” said a homeless woman to the attendant outside.

“It’s about time,” said another woman. “I come by here every night. It’s crazy.”

A few metres away, a young man injected drugs into his arm in an open stairwell beside a Subway restaurant. Two other men on the sidewalk openly traded cash for something in a small clear bag.

On the next block, at the Our Place Society shelter, a fire truck and ambulance arrived to attend to the second overdose of the morning.

A young woman was revived by paramedics in the washroom with a naloxone injection but did not want to go to the hospital.

A worried paramedic told her to stick around in case the opioid blocker wore off and she overdosed again.

“There’s still stigma and embarrassment with using,” said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie.

The woman overdosed in a washroom a few metres away from the new supervised consumption site in the courtyard outside. The shipping container, also called an overdose prevention site, is a temporary place for people to inject drugs with a paramedic and outreach worker nearby.

McKenzie said 30 people used the service on its opening day Tuesday and by noon Wednesday at least 14 had gone through. There were no overdoses. “We’re hoping word spreads that it’s a safe place and people stop choosing the washrooms,” he said.

Permanent supervised consumption services are in the works for a site next door, pending federal approval.