Victoria police have charged 16 people after an undercover sting targeted drug dealers who were selling around homeless shelters.
The six-week operation, which wrapped up on Wednesday, was in response to a dramatic increase in aggressive drug dealing in front of the Rock Bay Landing shelter on Ellice Street and Our Place drop-in centre on Pandora Avenue. Police found the bulk of the drug dealers were linked to a street-level gang that uses violence and intimidation.
“The level of violence had increased to such a degree that we weren’t just hearing from the service providers, we were hearing from the clientele, who said: ‘I’m not going by the shelter anymore — it’s too dangerous,’ ” said Insp. Scott McGregor, who heads the department’s downtown beat and bikes unit, which carried out the operation.
Don McTavish, Cool Aid’s manager of shelter programs, said a few months ago, staff at Rock Bay Landing noticed a group of drug dealers hanging out on the block who refused to leave. The situation was so bad that some clients felt unsafe using the shelter, he said.
“Where we have to draw the line is on violence, on trafficking, on the aggression that makes the whole neighbourhood unsafe,” McTavish said.
McGregor said it’s “intolerable” to see “opportunists profiting off of the illness and sickness of some of the people who have to access these facilities.”
Most of those charged are members of a street gang called the Nortenos, which has been growing in Victoria, McGregor said.
The Nortenos, first established in Latin American communities in the U.S., use the colour red and the number 14 as symbols. Gang members in Victoria have been spray painting the number 14 to mark their territory.
“That’s something very concerning to us when anybody is trying to establish a turf or territory,” McGregor said. “It’s something we want to disrupt immediately and not let them gain a foothold.”
Sixteen people have been charged with 19 counts of trafficking. Victoria police worked on Thursday to arrest those people. A woman was arrested Thursday morning as McGregor and McTavish stood outside Rock Bay Landing.
One shelter resident, Joseph Needham, said he had noticed an increase in violent incidents and welcomed news of the arrests.
“That’s the best idea, for them to take them away,” Needham said. Asked if he had felt unsafe, he said: “In a sense, yeah, but in another sense, no, because there are staff here and they’re watching what’s going on.”
Another woman, Cara-Lynn Alfred, is not staying at Rock Bay Landing but was outside sweeping cigarette butts and garbage from the sidewalk. Alfred, who is an addict, said she’s less concerned about arresting drug dealers than about improving services for addicts and opening up shelters to more people.
“People who are addicts get stuck in a three-to-five-block radius,” Alfred said, noting that she has a home in Esquimalt but chooses to stay downtown. “I need a strong foundation, a good support. I hate what [addiction] has done to my life.”
McTavish said since the police initiative wrapped up, he’s already seen a marked improvement around the shelter.
“We certainly have gotten the folks staying in the shelter coming out to tell us how much they appreciate having control of the space again, having a sanctuary from the street,” he said.