An increase in crime in Victoria’s downtown has hit struggling businesses harder amid the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in lost revenue for many.
“Businesses are literally just hanging on. A broken window with a $1,000 deductible, that could put a business over the edge,” said Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.
“So it is even more troubling now because there’s not the revenue coming in for businesses.”
Victoria police statistics show calls to police for crimes such as mischief, breaking and entering, weapons offences, robbery and vehicle theft are up in the downtown core in the first seven months of 2020 compared with the same period last year.
Calls reporting break and enters have nearly doubled, up from 162 in 2019 to 311 this year. Calls related to weapons offences have increased from 96 in 2019 to 154 in 2020.
For many types of criminal activity, calls are down from the same period in 2019. They include shoplifting, drugs-related offences, panhandling and theft, which is down by 233 calls.
However, Bray said many businesses were experiencing an increase in shoplifting and break-and-enters even before COVID-19 and it has escalated further during the pandemic, but not every incident is reported to police.
The business association is calling on the city to reverse its decision to allow 24/7 camping in the parks, including in Centennial Square, where there is a small encampment. “It’s not appropriate in the middle of a commercial area,” Bray said.
Mayor Lisa Helps said it has become clear that the encampment isn’t working for anyone.
“The people who are living there are preyed upon by others, and some of those others are also causing havoc in the downtown,” she wrote in an email.
“We will be looking to address this when council returns in September.”
Finding an improvement could mean bylaw changes that ban camping in the central business district, Helps said.
But a ban in the downtown would likely mean more people moving into parks, which already has many in the city upset, she said.
“The hard reality to be faced is that we won’t solve the problem by moving people around. We’ll make some people happier and other people unhappier,” Helps said.
The solution to homelessness is housing, Helps said, and the city has been working with the provincial government to try to find and create more of it.
Helps said she has explored the University of Victoria, CFB Esquimalt, Ogden Point and Oak Bay Lodge as options, but the locations haven’t worked out.
“And we’ve been pushing the federal government to match the provincial spending on COVID-related homelessness,” she said.
She noted that cities across Canada face the same challenges around homelessness as Victoria.
“Cities can be partners and allies, but we cannot solve the issue of homelessness on our own,” she said.