Calgary

What we heard: Vomit, drug use and harassment scare riders from CTrain. But could a crackdown cost lives?

The comments came fast and with emotion. Here's a snapshot of what we heard when we asked Calgary residents about security on transit.

Our transit story struck a nerve. We're working through hundreds of tips, comments

A full Calgary CTrain car. Some regular riders are concerned about safety on the train and at the stations. (Lucie Edwardson/ CBC)

Three overdoses on Calgary Transit in one day — CBC reporter Lucie Edwardson reported Monday on her day on the CTrain to launch our community-driven project on transit security.

The tips came fast and with emotion.

Many were comments like Laura Martin's: "I used to frequently take my children on the train to visit the downtown parks / spend a day at the zoo, places where parking is inconvenient or expensive. Now I wouldn't dream of taking my children on a bus or train in Calgary."

One of the last times she took a train with her seven-year-old, a man pulled out a glass pipe mere feet from where they sat and smoked it "as casually as if he was checking his phone."

They got out and took a cab home.

We've had hundreds of people write in — stories about vomit, getting hit or pushed, seeing drug use, experiencing fear and a finding new determination to stay as far away from the train as possible.

Many say they use the bus instead when they can because then a driver is present.

Carver Philips said the drugs and harassment made him switch to the bus but it doubled his commute time.

"The entire trip took over two hours; it was four hours of my day every day. I gave up and went back to driving every day. It takes 30 minutes each way, and my safety from someone on drugs or alcohol is no longer a concern."

A pair of security guards deliver a life-saving dose of Narcan to a man having an overdose at a bus stop outside of Marlborough LRT station on June 8. CBC News chose to publish this photo to illustrate what's happening but without identifying an individual in crisis. (CBC)

We're still reading and replying to hundreds of messages, but it's clear this is a widespread issue that is keeping many, many people from returning to Calgary Transit. The drug use and crime is jeopardizing a multibillion-dollar infrastructure resources meant for all Calgarians. 

The complexity of drugs on transit

But there's another story here, too. One that makes possible solutions more complex. 

Those three men who overdosed in front of Edwardson that day, all three lived. Two of them were saved by transit security. 

If public backlash to the drug use leads only to a crackdown, does that simply force the drugs, homelessness and desperation into dark corners where no one sees it? Using drugs out of sight can be a death sentence.

That's another theme we've heard, especially from a group of advocates on Twitter.

Several harm reduction advocates and journalists criticized CBC for being surprised and for not having the reporter carry Narcan, a nasal spray version of the opioid antidote naloxone, saying she should expect to see an overdose on transit and be prepared to reverse it herself.

Many people who joined our text messaging group first talked about how unsafe they felt. Then they got into the complexity of homelessness and drug use when they talked about solutions. They're fearful but concerned about those using drugs, too.

A 'pandemic of a different kind'

Elizabeth-Anne Johnson wrote: "I think the things that make people uncomfortable about using transit — homelessness, drug use, etc. — are caused by the lack of social support offered by the government. No one wants to be smoking crack at a train station or sleeping in a bus shelter, but we as a society have failed these people."

And Debbie Sellers said the problem can be seen far beyond transit. She said she lives in Forest Lawn, in an apartment off 17th Avenue S.E., where people using drugs have taken over their parkade.

She wrote: "No one can park their cars under the parkade anymore, cops seem to be limited on what they can do? … It has been surreal and we are facing another pandemic of a different kind.

"They will also come in groups in order to protect themselves as some of them don't feel safe, which is why they starting breaking into the backyard to sleep where they felt safer. I guess even those being homeless and using drugs are feeling unsafe as well. I spoke with another guy who seemed really nice, and he said he was beaten up and jumped on by a bunch of other guys."

Passengers board the CTrain at the Calgary Zoo station. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

The notes sent in on our texting app are confidential. The people we've named here gave their permission to share the comments publicly. 

What is community-driven journalism

The detailed comments on which stations are having certain issues, how the emergency text line does or doesn't help, how the problems are changing rider behaviour, and what solutions people would like to see explored — all these are helping to shape our questions for city, transit and provincial authorities, and to shape stories we tell next.

That's our next job: to build a question and story list for this project. Because that's what community-driven journalism is. It starts with listening; that listening and reporting goes in tandem. The publishing comes in stages; we keep learning and we can keep listening.

This search for understanding is a job we tackle together.

We'll talk with experts and advocates. That's important. And we also need to ground ourselves in listening to community. Because the experience of the people who are living this matters. That includes the people who take transit, or have been driven from transit, who don't want their kids on transit … and includes the people stuck in a horrible cycle of addiction.

This article was just a beginning. If you want to follow along, join our text messaging community.

And if you're curious about community-driven journalism, check out our past projects.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elise Stolte

Journalist

Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary last year. You can reach her at elise.stolte@cbc.ca.

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