Last October, Dawn-Rai Kitt wanted to start a public conversation about problems in the downtown.
That she did — the co-owner of Bahrey Dental and Kitt Hygiene in Red Deer’s core got people talking, and drew a rapid response from both the city and RCMP.
But as far as Kitt is concerned now, that conversation has only just begun.
The frustrated downtown business owner told the Advocate last fall that she was fed up with problems being created by street youths or “vagrants” around her business in Heritage Village and the area directly southwest of the downtown McDonald’s restaurant.
Kitt outlined issues in the area ranging from nudity, to public sex, vulgarities, consumption of alcohol openly during the day, to concerns about safety. She differentiated vagrants from regular homeless people, with whom she does not have a problem.
The day the story appeared in the Advocate, Kitt began to get reaction.
“My phone started going off, it did not stop.” Even now, Kitt hears from people — three last week — identifying with her concerns.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted. I had no idea me beaking off was going to create what it did. … I still remain in awe … it’s a real issue.”
Kitt said RCMP Supt. Scott Tod was the first person to contact her, followed by Mayor Tara Veer who left a message offering help.
“I definitely know I was heard. The response from the RCMP … has been extremely genuine.”
“Will the winter put a little slowdown on things and allow us to collaborate and make a plan so that in spring 2015 we’re prepared? And that’s basically what he said to me is that’s part of what he’s up to is looking to work with his people as to how are we going to deal with this.
“I think the greater issue is that Red Deer has a horrible drug problem. We have a big, big drug problem … And what do we do to deal with this? We have to be quite aggressive. We have to have the laws and the manpower to enforce the laws. And then we have to have the court system that’s going to allow that to carry forward.
“And I think a lot of the comments I received from individuals has been our society has become one where there’s no ramifications for anything we do.”
“So it doesn’t matter if you have a vagrant and you’re going to give him a $100 vagrancy or loitering ticket. He’s not going to pay it. So what’s the purpose of having a city bylaw for that problem if it really can’t be enforced?”
“I think people in many residential areas, the crimes rates, the auto theft, it’s hitting people every day now. I think more people are waking up to the fact that we do have some serious criminal issues, and we’re not this little town anymore where you know your neighbour and you can feel safe in your little world,” says Kitt.
“I have got to witness three different occasions where the RCMP have had people in handcuffs in the McDonald’s parking lot. … We’ve heard some conversation now they’re migrating up the hill. … It’s a deeper issue.
“I don’t think that any of us feel, though, that we have any rights. Again just (last) week speaking with those three individuals … there was definitely shock and dismay knowing what our legal system truly is and how little rights you do have.
“That the vagrant has the rights and that’s still confusing to us all, and … changing bylaws is a huge deal.
“Accepting meth heads is not acceptable. To know that someone can walk into our front door here and harm our receptionist who’s three feet from the front door ’cause they’re in a deranged state isn’t acceptable to me because they don’t want help … they’re not accepting help.
“We need to start waking up people like me. I was living a passive life in my own little bubble and did not know what was happening around me and it was only until it was pushed upon me that I’m going: This is really the law? How can this be right?
“I didn’t grow up in a tremendously strict family. … I just got raised that there is right and wrong and we do have the opportunity to make choices.
“The pressure shouldn’t just be on the police … the bylaws can only do so much … if they get them to the courthouse, they don’t have any control after that … if the judges are not doing their job, they need to be held accountable too.
After Kitt raised her concerns last year, the City of Red Deer soon undertook a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) study, suggesting modifications that Heritage Village could make to help reduce crime and other problems in the area.
Mayor Veer said there is a meeting on Jan. 19 with Heritage Village to review the study.
The implementation of many of the recommendations will be at the discretion of the private stakeholders.
City manager Craig Curtis and Veer have been meeting regularly with Tod, and council has been briefed in terms of the overall downtown strategy, Veer said.
“That work is continuing. We’re also wanting to encourage the Heritage Village owners to be a part of that broader downtown safety strategy work as well.
“I will say though, in response to public concerns that have been raised, the police chief received a very clear message both from council and from the city manager about the need to provide enforcement where there are enforceable activities occurring in the downtown.
Kitt believed that Taylor Drive intersection construction last summer resulted in problems for street people — they weren’t able to easily access the river where they often hang out.
Veer said that part of the ongoing discussion with Heritage Village has been around the Taylor Drive construction impact and landscaping work in the area, including a multi-purpose trail, which will be completed in the spring. Some aspects of it have yet to be determined.
It’s not yet known whether foot traffic patterns will change once the work is complete, Veer said.
The mayor said she is well aware that citizens have named public safety as a top concern and council takes this very seriously.
“In response to that, the city has commissioned the superintendent of police to come up with a downtown safety strategy, which he is working on in the broader long-term sense, but is also implementing interim strategies.”
Jackie May, a community facilitator in the city’s Social Planning Department, said an informal committee that in part looks at issues downtown is a work in progress.
The Downtown Community Development Committee, which has no actual authority, has seen representation from such groups as the city, police, businesses, social agencies and residents.
“We’re doing some individual work with businesses to support them in responding to social issues. Some of that feeds into the committee.”
May has met with Kitt and other Heritage Village representatives.
“Part of my work has been to deal with the social issues downtown or to find ways to approach it.
“You know we’re dealing with folks who are really marginalized, vulnerable, street-involved, may or may not be homeless, doing things that sometimes … are inappropriate, unsafe, sometimes illegal and are doing it in places where it’s making some of the folks that come downtown fearful.
“So we’re trying to kind of equip businesses with a response to that. At the same time, there’s an RCMP response to that, there’s an outreach component from that from some of the social agencies.”
May points out that over time there has been positive action in the downtown, such as the old Buffalo Hotel now housing people who would otherwise be on the street.
“I think there has been significant changes but you have to remember that the population is changing and growing all the time. You know we have a core chunk of these folks that are really transient so they come and go. We have a core group of chronic homeless folks with pretty serious addictions and mental health (issues). Many of them have died on the streets here.”
May said that she believes a combination of factors led to Heritage Village’s problems, which really only surfaced last summer.
“They have every right to be frustrated and angry because they haven’t experienced that before,” May said.
And so the conversation about downtown Red Deer continues.