Downtown homeless situation will need ‘multi-pronged approach’: City

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Finding a solution for transient people drinking and acting out inappropriately in public places is a larger issue that is going to require the community working together to resolve, says the City’s General Manager of Community Services.

A local resident has spoken out about her concerns following consecutive uneasy situations in which she says people have been drinking, fighting and behaving inappropriately in public places like the North Peace Cultural Centre.

Cara Nicolaysen told she was taking her toddler son and infant daughter to the Cultural Centre recently when a fight broke right before them.

“A fight broke out right in front of the doors,” she said. “A bottle of vodka was thrown, there’s pushing and the janitor is out there trying to do something.”

Her son started attending the PlayArts preschool program in January, and Nicolaysen said she has seen at least three other similar situations play out since then.

“I understand that it’s downtown Fort St. John, but this is our fine arts centre,” she said.

Nicolaysen said other people she knows have similar concerns to hers.

The Cultural Centre’s Operations Manager Oliver Hachmeister says the staff at the facility are fully aware of the problem of people drinking and behaving poorly in their facility, but can only do so much.

“It’s a city-wide problem, it’s not just the Cultural Centre,” he said, adding that other downtown businesses have encountered the same problem. Hachmeister said he’s spoken to people who work at banks located downtown, and says some have hired security guards and started locking their ATMs up.

The local CIBC has recently started closing it's vestibule overnight. Photo by Montana Cumming
The local CIBC has recently started closing it’s vestibule overnight. Photo by Montana Cumming

“That’s what they’re having to do to deal with the issues that they’re having,” he said. “Homelessness is a problem across the province, across the country. And, honestly, it’s not a crime to be homeless. But what is a crime is to be drunk and disorderly in public.”

The staff at the Cultural Centre cannot physically remove anyone who causes a disturbance, Hachmeister said, as it could be used in a case of assault.

“If we know they have alcohol, we’ll either seize the alcohol or remove them from the building.  Generally, we ask them to leave and if they refuse, the police are called and have to remove them themselves.”

Hachmeister says the response of the RCMP on the matter has been ‘quite good,’ though there are times that other issues get priority and the response time is slower.

“We’re trying to find another solution as well, but we don’t know what that is.”

The Cultural Centre meets with the City on a regular basis, and the topic has come up and been discussed before. But there isn’t one single solution for the issue at hand, according to General Manager of Community Services Wally Ferris with the City of Fort St. John.

Many factors play into a multi-pronged approach needed for a solution, said Ferris, including social services, mental health, physical health, and addiction.

“For this issue to be resolved, there will have to be a community that will have to come together to resolve it,” he said. “It’s a larger issue to resolve, and not one that the City can resolve on it’s own, or one the Cultural Centre can resolve on it’s own.”

Ferris noted that it’s not illegal to be homeless, and added that the design and essence of the Cultural Centre is ‘inviting and meant to be inclusive for all people.’

“I believe that the instructions they give to their staff, that they should follow, are the same that we give to our city staff in our city facilities. That is, if you see something illegal or dangerous, then you have to call the RCMP,” he added, stating that the Cultural Society operates the Cultural Centre on behalf of the city.

The city is looking at a social framework project, to hopefully kick off later this year. Like the Cultural Centre, the City can only do so much to remedy the problem. Ferris said it’s not for them to say that more shelters are needed, as social services are typically a provincial mandate.

“Even if you go into the single facility, such as the Cultural Centre or North Peace Leisure Pool, and you start to push people out of that facility. Where are they going to go?”

To answer that question, Captain Sheldon Feener with the local Salvation Army says the facility has extended it’s hours and added more beds to try to make their services more accessible for the transient population.

But, even then, he says, they’re a 90-bed facility running at full capacity.

“It’s something we deal with in many locations, not just here,” he said. “It’s kind of tough, especially in the colder months because there’s nowhere for people to go. It’s freezing outside, and they struggle.”

The Salvation Army opens at 4 p.m. to accommodate people, rather than 8 p.m. as it was before. But it does have to close from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. so maintenance work can be done.

Capt. Feener said they aren’t dry centres, but people who come in aren’t allowed to drink alcohol.

“I won’t allow them to drink in the facility, but I will allow them to come in if they’re intoxicated, as long as they’re well-behaved, and most of them are. You get the occasional flare up, but that can happen with anybody.”

The Salvation Army’s Northern Centre of Hope opened in August 2014, and received funding for 26 more beds last November.