Edmonton Chinatown business owners ask city for extra security

Community leaders says more policing is needed to tackle crime in Chinatown and the city needs to step up.

'What other community in Edmonton has gone to the extent of having to hire their own private police service?'

Bob Dawe said a larger police presence is needed to tackle crime and disorder in Chinatown. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Break-ins, smashed windows and repeated graffiti are just some of the troubles landlord Bob Dawe says he's had to deal with this past year.

He's one of several business owners in Edmonton's Chinatown who are calling on authorities to tackle the issue of homelessness and improve security in the area.

"We had a murder just down the alley here a week and a half ago, we had a shooting victim from six doors down who was bleeding to death on the street in front of us," Dawe told CBC in a recent interview. 

"We've had an attempted mugging. We've had a home invasion. Like seven people broke into the building, used crowbars to try and bust open the doors … So the city says there's no increase in any crime. Well, it sure seems like an awful lot."

Last year, two security officers were hired by the Chinatown Transformation Collaborative Society (CTC) and Chinatown and Area Business Association to patrol the neighbourhood. 

The measure was brought to deal with the community's frustration that police were not patrolling often enough — or responding quickly enough — to tackle the vandalism, drug trafficking and litter plaguing the neighbourhood, says Antoni Fonny, the CTC's executive director. 

"The businesses were so happy that we had a security team helping them because wherever there was a problem, they could call the security team and the security team would go right away within two minutes," Fonny said.

But at $7,000 a month for eight hours a day, the groups could not afford to keep that going.

Now they want police to designate patrol officers solely to Chinatown or provide city-paid security instead.

And if the city agreed to designate police officers to a Chinatown beat, Dawe would be willing to provide an office for them in the Hull Block, the residential and commercial building that he owns at 97th Street and 106th Avenue.

"What other community in Edmonton has gone to the extent of having to hire their own private police service to do policing?" asked Dawe. "What we need is beat cops to walk the streets."

The CTC says a lot of the problems are related to three supervised injection sites that operate in the area, at Boyle Street, Boyle McCauley Health Centre and the George Spady Centre. Boyle Street operations have temporarily moved the Edmonton Convention Centre, the site of an emergency winter shelter. COVID-19 has made the problems even worse.

Fonny said it's common to see dealers selling drugs in the open and people crying, shouting or shooting up in front of stores in the middle of the day.

'How can a business survive?'

Of 90 local businesses surveyed in the fall of 2020 by the CTC, one-quarter indicated they were either closing temporarily or for good. 

"How can a business survive in this kind of area?" asked Fonny, who envisions a future Chinatown that is attractive to tourists, businesses and residents alike. "We need more resources from the government so Chinatown can flourish again."
Antoni Fonny's group hired additional security for Chinatown last year. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

In early 2019 a federal court judge dismissed the business association's attempt to have approvals for injection sites revoked. 

The judge found that the record in front of Health Canada showed a public health need but provided little evidence of a public safety risk that had not pre-existed. 

Sang Nguyen, owner of the Lucky 97 supermarket that his family has run since 1974, said the area needs more police patrols and issues around homelessness need to be addressed.

"I don't understand how they can make that choice to throw three injection sites into a community and expect the community to resolve its own problem without support of the city," Nguyen said.

'Need to do much better'

Counc. Scott McKeen said the city is working to tackle the concentration of homelessness in several ways, including building five supportive housing units around the city by the end of the year.

He said he would raise the issue of additional security with the police commission and discuss potential funding opportunities with the business association. 

"I actually have a lot of empathy with Chinatown.They felt like they got picked on," said McKeen.

He also expressed empathy for the Edmontonians seeking services in the area.

"We need to do much better for these people, we need to stop treating this as a criminal justice issue and fully engage our mental and physical health systems to just halt this dysfunctional cycle of despair and crime and impact on businesses," McKeen said.

Edmonton police say in response to concerns raised by the business association they assigned dedicated beat officers to respond to complaints and address long-term problems.

EPS said it could not provide CBC with up-to-date figures around response times or calls for service in Chinatown.

City officials listed a number of initiatives aimed at enhancing security in the area including the newly formed Chinatown Safety Council. The CTC received $375,000 in city funding for 2019 and 2020, the city added.

Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan said funding for supervised consumption sites is under review.

"We empathize with the local community and the challenges businesses are facing in the area, and have met with them many times to hear their concerns," Kitz wrote in an email to CBC. "We are taking a community-by-community approach, looking at local needs and realities, when making decisions regarding the funding for supervised consumption sites. Those decisions have not yet been made."