Jonathan Balah and Mohamed Alhaj Mohamod, with Red Deer Downtown Business Association, were cleaning up needle debris under the CP Rail Bridge on Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)

Drug use turns Red Deer bridge into ‘zombie apocalypse’

Downtown police unit to keep an eye on CPR bridge area

The area around Red Deer’s historic CPR pedestrian bridge has become more scary than scenic after becoming a hangout for drug users.

In fact, one frequent passerby has dubbed the landmark and the activity that surrounds it a “zombie apocalypse.”

Symantha DeSchiffart, of Riverside Meadows, said for safety reasons she takes along an umbrella with a wooden handle when she crosses the bridge to and from work — just in case.

DeSchiffart said she’s sympathetic to those battling addiction, but fears the overdose prevention site is making things worse.

“I don’t want to be scared, and this area is getting more scarier. Something has to be done for the rest of us. We’re important too,” said DeSchiffart after encountering a man swearing and yelling on the walking bridge Tuesday morning.

Red Deer’s crime grew worse compared with almost every other Canadian city during a five-year period, Maclean’s magazine said this week. For 2017 alone, statistics show Red Deer was in sixth place in the nation.

Red Deer RCMP Insp. Dean LaGrange, who is in charge of a new four-member downtown unit, said police are aware of the issues around the bridge and the area has been part of enhanced patrols.

“It makes you feel unsafe when there are people who may be high on drugs. While they aren’t necessarily being a direct threat to you, I do understand that feeling of the vulnerability that people can have. They’re unpredictable,” LaGrange said.

DeSchiffart said she has seen people living under the bridge, passed out on top of the bridge and in bushes, having sex in public and smoking meth on the curb. In the summer, she said, someone flashed her on a Sunday afternoon.

She said she frequently encounters people under the influence of drugs and recalled a man from a recent incident.

“He’s walking like he doesn’t have any bones. He’s right messed up. It’s scary. He’s trying to talk. You don’t know what they’re going to do when they need money.

“This right here is a zombie apocalypse in this area. It’s not safe for anybody.”

She wondered why money was available for the overdose prevention site when it’s rehab programs that are needed. Drugs are illegal, noted DeSchiffart, and while preventing overdoses and saving lives is important, what about everybody else?

“Why do we have to deal with this? I want to help people. I just think (the overdose prevention site) is not the way to do it,” DeSchiffart said.

LaGrange said the new RCMP unit is patrolling the downtown, as well as the walking bridge and the overdose prevention site, to help people feel safe and remind those engaged in risky lifestyles, or criminal activity, that police could show up at any moment.

But the public does need to keep police informed, he said.

“The more information we glean from people, who are our eyes and ears, the better we can redirect our resources and make sure we’re there. If we know certain times of day where there are issues, then it’s not just random patrols, we actually can target the patrols.”

LaGrange said there have not been many calls to police about the overdose prevention site. The few calls made so far were for drugs left on site, a suspicious person and a false alarm. People have also noticed less needle debris in the downtown since the site opened, he said.

Workers with the Red Deer Downtown Business Association, cleaning up used needles under the bridge on Tuesday, agreed.

A spokeswoman for the agency that operates the overdose prevention site said she recognizes that because the facility is new, some people feel uncertain about it.

“It’s a little bit fearful for people and that’s OK,” said Sarah Fleck, Turning Point’s clinical manager.

She said the site provides a place for drug users to be monitored post-consumption. They are required to stay 15 minutes, but often people remain longer, so it’s a safer solution, she said.

“We can’t reach everybody, but we’re definitely reaching a lot of people who normally would be outside.”

Fleck said studies on similar sites show it doesn’t increase the number of drug users in the area.

“People aren’t coming to the site because it’s there. They’re around the site and they’re choosing to use in there, which will actually positively impact the community, and decrease needles, and decrease people who are outside and using in public places,” Fleck said.

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