Dawn-Rai Kitt has a lot of questions.
“Why am I a law-abiding citizen having to be reactive to street youth? Why am I a taxpayer having to cut my businesses’ trees? Why am I having to put up security cameras? Why am I having to make sure my staff is safe when they walk to their car?”
Kitt is an owner of a downtown business, Bahrey Dental and Kitt Hygiene, at 5212 48th St. in Red Deer. The business area is called Heritage Village.
She and other nearby business people have become exasperated with a problem that intensified in May when road construction began on the Taylor Drive intersection near her business, located directly behind the downtown McDonald’s restaurant.
The city is aware of their concerns. She’s not sure the response is really going to resolve things.
When the road work began, it apparently cut off passage and displaced street people around the river area near the water treatment plant. She soon began to notice “street youth” hanging around her business location where she has been the past seven years.
And since then, she said, there’s been no lack of problems from a group of people, not always the same ones, who number as high as 12 at a time.
“We began having a significant group of street youth and vagrants who made our area their new home.”
A typical complaint Kitt might report could include any or some of the following: “Nudity, having sex, having open liquor, having drug paraphernalia, loitering, defecating, vulgarities through our windows, camping out, sleeping here.”
“This has been an ongoing issue. We’ve had bylaw on speed dial. In some instances contacting them up to three times a day.”
Kitt differentiates between the street youth and other homeless people.
“It’s not a homeless gentleman who is doing graffiti on our building or putting rocks through our windows. . .. That’s not the person that’s doing it.”
“They don’t wish to be around us anymore than we want them to be about. They don’t leave trash. They are not the issue.
“No. These are young adults who are using drugs, selling drugs, they’re doing a lot of theft. They had a bike chop shop outside of our window for a good part of the summer. They know how to use the system. This is a very different slice of society.”
“Wednesday of last week, at 9:20 a.m. they spread out a blanket and had a beer right outside of our window. I myself as a taxpayer would never in my wildest dreams crack a beer at 9:20 in the morning. But there’s no fear of repercussion or that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Regular contact with City of Red Deer bylaws officers and RCMP has not resolved the problem, she said. She doesn’t blame them. She believes there is only so much they can do.
If police pick up someone, they may have three hours of paperwork, and there’s nothing to hold the person in custody anyway, Kitt said.
“I think if they (police, bylaw) had the ability (to deal with the problem) this would not have gone on for five months.”
“I think I am at the point of saying: Why? Why are we allowing vagrants to dictate?”
“It’s got to a point for us of extreme frustration that they can’t do anything. … We’ve been asked to take video and photographs and document things. Well, we actually have a job to do. We come here to work.”
“I did not go to school to be any kind of police person. I’m not understanding why I should have to do that.
I alone pay close to $13,000 in property taxes.”
Kitt said Red Deer has “some of the most amazing outreach facilities” downtown. “We have everything possible to help assist them. … well if you don’t want help you can’t be sitting out here loitering and causing trouble.”
“What do you do with them? We as society, are we going to just allow them to stay if they don’t wish to have help?
“All I know, as a citizen I shouldn’t be fearful at my place of work and again as a business owner I shouldn’t have to pay for their vandalism.”
She doesn’t know what the answer is. “I have suggestions. I don’t think they’re politically correct.”
Kitt is concerned that her condo fees she pays for her business will be rising because of all the repairs, such as cleaning graffiti and fixing broken windows.
“Our lawn, normally pristine … looks terrible. You can’t see blades of grass for the cigarette butts and the garbage they leave behind daily.”
She also feels the onus has been placed on businesses to solve the problem.
“You the business owner should cut your trees so they can’t hide in them. You the business owner should lock you garbage receptacle so they can’t get entry. You the business owner should put up spotlights. You the business owner should hire security.”
“We the owners are told to be very cautious in our reaction to them for fear of repercussions.
“I’m not understanding why I as taxpayer, both personally and business, have to be fearful of street youths.”
She said she’s spoken to many other business owners who have been broken into or their businesses have had to make adjustments all at their own cost to deal with the problem.
“Do we have to revisit bylaws to address a problem that happens I’m sure everywhere, without this kind of thing — Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.”
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design is in fact part of what the city sees as a solution.
It involves, among other things, doing things around businesses, such as removing trees so people won’t camp in an area.
Kitt asks why should she tear up grass and put in rocks to keep people from sitting on it. “Who is paying for that?
Heritage Village representatives have met with city representatives, including the mayor, about the concerns.
Mayor Tara Veer said she and the city manager, Craig Curtis, have been working closely with the chief of police, RCMP Insp. Scott Tod.
“We have identified downtown as an area needing more enforcement,” Veer said.
A Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design analysis has been done on Heritage Village to help identify initiatives that can be implemented, she said.
“It would be important what would be private implementation and what would be the responsibility of the city.”
At the moment it’s a work in progress.
Veer said that there are likely a few issues at play concerning the problems at Heritage Village.
One would be the road construction, but also she suggests that other businesses have been more aggressive in the area in terms of private security, which may have displaced people and activities from those businesses onto Heritage Village.
“If the bigger issue is displacement throughout the downtown I think that that is where the city needs to place significant priority if we’re going to get to the root of what the issues really are,” Veer said.
“The concerns that Heritage Village has identified are highly symptomatic of a bigger picture. I think as Red Deer has grown so substantial in the last 10 years alone … and all the great things about our prime geographic positioning in the province also pose a challenge for us when it comes to dealing with crime and social issues.”
Red Deer’s strong social services infrastructure providing support for individuals in need has in many respects also attracted a lot of individuals throughout the province seeking out those services, Veer said.
And yet if you look at the city’s social service capacity, it’s hard to keep up, she said.
Veer points to a new crime safety committee approved by council that will be a formal mechanism to channel specific safety concerns, and will be in operation hopefully early in the new year.
She says police foot patrols have recently been increased in the downtown in response to the concerns raised by Heritage Village and other downtown groups.
Higher priority is being placed on crime prevention and enforcement, she said.
As well, the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT) has a strong presence downtown.
“In the bigger picture we are really focusing on organized crime and its activities in Red Deer and the ALERT team has been pursuing that.”
“When you look at public safety in general in Red Deer, addictions, property and person crime are strongly rooted in drug trafficking.”
All of this though, to be sure, won’t resolve all of Kitt’s concerns any time soon, if at all.