British Columbia

Spike in crime, homelessness in Prince George linked to some wildfire evacuees

Officials say an increase in crime and homelessness in Prince George, B.C., can be partially attributed to a "small percentage" of wildfire evacuees from neighbouring communities choosing to stay in the city.

Police say 'small percentage' of more than 10,000 people who arrived in city in 2017 contributed to problems

Staff and volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Prince George, B.C., say they've seen a surge in people utilizing their breakfast and lunch programs in recent months. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Officials say an increase in crime and homelessness in Prince George, B.C., can be partially attributed to a "small percentage" of wildfire evacuees from neighbouring communities choosing to stay in the city.

In 2017, the city took in more than 10,000 evacuees — roughly 12 per cent of its overall population — and 2018's record-breaking wildfire season saw around 1,300 take shelter in the community.

RCMP Supt. Warren Brown said while it is too early to evaluate this year's effects, a rise in crime in 2017 could be partially attributed to that surge in population.

Brown said RCMP had identified several repeat offenders now living in Prince George who were previously known to police in neighbouring communities that had been affected by wildfires.

In the month of August 2018, bylaw officers cleaned up enough syringes to fill a five-gallon bucket in downtown Prince George, along with multiple tonnes of other waste collected from campsites on public and private property. (City of Prince George)

"A very small percentage plagued us with increases in crime downtown, specifically related to thefts, thefts from vehicles, and break-and-enters," he said.

Likewise, the city's bylaw manager Fred Crittenden said his staff has seen a rise in the number of people living on the street, many of whom are struggling with mental health and addiction.

"It is a struggle," he said.

More campers, food bank users

However, Crittenden said many other issues are at play, and pointed out that communities across the province are dealing with similar issues.

Prince George's central location also makes it attractive for people from northern communities to relocate to.

Eating lunch at a Prince George food bank, Anthony Brown said he had moved from Prince Rupert, B.C., in an effort to upgrade his work certificates. 

"Bigger city, more opportunities here," he said.

City bylaw services say that more than 580 cases of illegal campsites have been recorded in Prince George in 2018, compared to just 72 by the same time in 2017. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Brown said while he had found a room to rent for $425 a month, he knew many others who weren't as lucky.

"See a lot of people sleeping outside here," he said. "If I had it my way, I'd put a roof over everybody's head."

Shane Mingus said he had been living out of a tent since August, as he no longer wanted to deal with the shelter system.

Originally from Burns Lake, B.C., he said the services available in Prince George made it a better place to stay while searching for work.

Mingus said he both uses and volunteers with the food bank, as he feels it's a vital service for the community.

"The money we get, we can survive on," he said. "Burns Lake, Fort St. James, there's nothing like this."

'Hot spot' hotels closed

The city of Prince George has also been engaged in shutting down so-called "hot spots" for crime, suspending the business licences of several hotels identified by police as major sources of criminal activity.

When asked if the loss of those units may be contributing to the rise in homelessness, Crittenden said it's difficult to gauge, adding that the city has worked with provincial services to find people living in the hotels affordable housing elsewhere.

The City of Prince George revoked the Connaught Motor Inn's business licence in 2017 after RCMP revealed it was being called to the property hundreds of times a year. Two other hotels have since had their licences suspended for similar reasons. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

He said that, ultimately, it's the city's job to make sure businesses are operating according to the rules.

"Those were not great places to be living," he said.

"It's expected that you run a safe, healthy, clean business. We know that people can do that and still house the low income [residents]."

But he said the situation is becoming more urgent as winter approaches.

"There has to be some long-term solutions. The city's not in a position to use a magic wand and create a whole bunch of housing... It's an issue that every community in this province is facing."

In 2017, Prince George bylaw services recorded 72 incidents of people camping downtown. In 2018: over 500. The CBC's Andrew Kurjata visits a food bank and homeless camp in downtown Prince George, then Carolina de Ryk speaks to bylaw manager Fred Crittenden about how the city is managing the growing number of at-risk people in the downtown core. 12:21

Read more from CBC British Columbia

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.