Peter Smith is becoming frustrated with the makeshift tents, loud and boisterous people and drug paraphernalia and other garbage that is being left on Lewis Street.
Smith, who lives on the street located close to Beverly Street, said groups of apparently transient people have turned the mostly residential street into a nightmare for residents.
He said shopping carts full of personal items, tents, discarded needles and all kinds of garbage are all over the street.
“There are disturbances here almost every night, but if you say anything to these people, they become abusive,” Smith said.
“Bylaw officers from North Cowichan and the police come by almost on a daily basis, and the people are sometimes moved away, but when the authorities leave, they come right back again.”
Smith said he’s considering organizing a protest to draw attention to the problem.
“There’s a lot of taxpaying people living here and we want something done,” Smith said.
“These people have no fear of consequences and nothing is getting resolved. It’s disgusting.”
Lewis Street has had similar problems in the past.
Last year, bylaw officers, clean up crews and officers from the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment descended on an empty privately owned lot on Lewis Street after a tent city began to become established there.
The same lot had to be cleared of tents and people in 2017 as well.
The Warmland House homeless shelter is adjacent to Lewis Street, but it doesn’t allow drugs or alcohol use on site, which is a problem for some who need its services.
Warmland’s executive director James Tousignant said the shelter is designed to help people move forward with their lives after experiencing homelessness and related issues, including addictions.
He said having active users at the site at the same time as those recovering from drug use and addictions doesn’t work.
Tousignant said having people taking drugs like opioids and crystal meth and ending up on the sidewalks around the shelter is relatively new to the facility.
“Some people do their drugs of choice at the local overdose prevention site, but the OPS is only open six hours a day,” he said.
“Last year, a lot of these people would set up in camps in the bushes, but the local municipalities and the RCMP have done an excellent job shutting down these camps soon after they are located.”
Tousignant said the City of Duncan, Municipality of North Cowichan and the Cowichan Valley Regional District have been working with BC Housing to develop a plan for a low-barrier shelter in the area.
He said drug users would be able to do their drugs on site in the facility, and, much the like the overdose prevention site, there would be staff on hand who can assist in the event of an overdose.
“One of the reasons a lot of these people set up and do their drugs around here is because we have an ambulance that is almost always across the street,” Tousignant said.
“The drug users know that if they overdose around here, they won’t die alone. Hopefully, once the low barrier shelter is in place, we’ll see less activity on Lewis Street. Right now, our manager joins the RCMP and bylaw officers every morning to help clean up the street.”
Keith Simmonds, a member of the Cowichan Coalition to Address Homelessness and Affordable Housing and a minister at the Duncan United Church, said much of the problem on Lewis Street is also connected to the ongoing affordable housing issue in the area.
He said that while the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s affordable housing referendum passed last fall, the strategy is still in its early stages so there’s still a lack of affordable housing in the area at this time.
“The federal and provincial governments also said they would do a lot to help us with this crisis, but we’re not seeing a lot of direct results on the ground,” Simmonds said.
“Homeless people don’t have a lot of places to go to connect with services and be part of the community. Right now they just seem to be pushed back and forth between the highway corridor and the downtown core. Places have to found for them to go.”
Martin Drakeley, North Cowichan’s manager of fire and bylaw services, said bylaw officers and the RCMP are conducting regular patrols of the area and asking campers on the sidewalk along Lewis Street to move their belongings and clear the area.
But he acknowledged that officials are aware that they regularly return after officials leave the area.
“North Cowichan is taking the approach of working with Warmland and individuals camping on Lewis Street to connect them with support services,” Drakeley said.
“Heavy-handed enforcement and forcible relocation is not a preferred option, as it often simply moves camping elsewhere.”
Drakeley said North Cowichan and the City of Duncan are collaborating on a safer community plan, with the help of external expertise, in response to crime and public disorder in the downtown corridor area.
Stakeholders in this process are North Cowichan, Duncan, local First Nations, RCMP, provincial ministries, area businesses, health and social services, and local neighborhoods.
“Through the safer community plan, North Cowichan and Duncan are considering actions such as establishing a downtown safety office to house bylaw/community safety officers, RCMP, and security,” Drakeley said.
“North Cowichan’s council has also recently approved a new RCMP crime analyst position to provide data and intelligence to support decision-making around crime, disorder, and homelessness.”