Victoria Police Chief Del Manak was touring some of the city’s homeless camps Thursday afternoon to try to get a sense of what his officers have been telling him for the past few months — that things are getting increasingly hostile.
“We knew the tone and the tenure [sic] on the streets was shifting and there’s a lot of anti-police, anti-bylaw, anti-enforcement sentiment on the streets,” Manak said. “We’re just finding it’s very, very challenging and the situation has gotten much worse over the last couple of months.”
It comes just days after a Burnaby RCMP officer, Const. Shaelyn Yang, was stabbed to death while attending a call involving a homeless camper alongside a city parks employee.
“Constable Yang was asked to assist in a notification to him that he wasn’t permitted to be in the park,” Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) spokesperson Sgt. Timothy Pierotti told media Wednesday.
In Victoria, typically two or more police officers will accompany bylaw officers on any call to a homeless encampment. Manak says they are revisiting those procedures in light of the Burnaby tragedy.
“Just re-looking at what we’re doing to making sure we’re keeping our officers and bylaw officers safe when they’re engaging with those that are experiencing homelessness,” he said.
Nanaimo has launched a specialized team of 12 bylaw officers this year called the Community Safety Unit. With backgrounds in policing and outreach their job is to help support those without housing and deescalate when required, usually only calling in police if there are threats or weapons.
“These are people in crisis and needs of support and most of the daily interactions with homeless people are benign and it’s more about providing supports and solving problems in the moment,” said Dave LaBerge, Manager of Community Safety and Bylaw in Nanaimo.
Camper Trent Smith has been living in Victoria’s Stadacona Park for 18 months and admits tensions between those on the streets and those in enforcement are high.
“Not everybody’s dangerous… but anybody can be pushed to that limit given enough pressure you know, being homeless you’re under the most pressure you could be,” he said.
What everyone does agree on is that the key to reducing conflict lies in providing not just housing, but help for those with severe mental health and substance use challenges.
“When people are in the throes of addiction and not able to break out of their cycle and they have a propensity towards violence and anti-social behaviour that is a really bad recipe,” Manak said.
“Overall we need better housing, more quality care housing and we need to treat people with some respect and lift people up instead of crushing them down,” said Smith.