Business owners near Kitchener encampment call on region to provide more security
'It's because I care about my community that we've been pushing the region to do something,' one owner says
Audrey Spieker says she watched on her security camera's footage as a woman set fire to her coat in front of Wonderland Tattoo last week.
The woman appeared to use some kind of an accelerant and torch, Spieker says.
"What happens if she were to light the building on fire?" Spieker said. "Like, maybe not on purpose, but what if her bottle of accelerant dumps over and she's high on drugs? We're watching her smoke crack. She's not making good choices."
For Spieker, the fire was the latest in many instances of vandalism and harassment since people began living in tents in regionally owned property beside the plaza where Wonderland Tattoo is located.
"We've been having safety concerns here since the spring. We've had people with knives outside. We get death threats at the building for asking somebody smoking crack at our door to leave," she said.
"I don't think that's acceptable. I don't think I need to tolerate that."
A few doors down, Jessica Harrison at The Cake Box says they've had weekly occurrences of damage to property, harassment and garbage.
She says she's made calls to the region, the city, the security company hired to be at the site 16 hours a day and police.
She said the region has said they can change the hours of security, but can't commit yet to 24 hours a day.
"We're not getting the security that we need," she said.
"Money has come out of our pockets to install our own security cameras to put in new measures. I had to replace the lock on my door because it was vandalized with somebody trying to break in, so there are monetary losses of our sales, not just for me, but the other businesses as well in this plaza here."
Region has heard concerns
One person moved onto the vacant lot at Victoria and Weber streets in January. The encampment began to grow in March and now more than 60 people live at the site.
The region posted an eviction notice and said people living at the encampment needed to be off the site by June 30, but most people remained and they were not forcibly removed. The region is now going to court over evicting people at the site. The eviction application is scheduled to be heard Nov. 7 and 8 in a Kitchener courtroom.
Peter Sweeney is the commissioner of community services at the Region of Waterloo and he says he has heard concerns from local businesses.
He said regional staff are reviewing the request for 24-hour security at the encampment site, but in the meantime, have offered to move the hours security is on site to cover more of the overnight hours.
He said the safety of people living in the encampment and the people who live and work nearby is the region's "top priority."
He said staff go into the encampment three or four times a week to work with people living there and ensure they have access to services. The region makes sure there's access to washrooms and clean water and there's garbage cleanup at the site. A dumpster has been placed at the encampment and it's emptied daily, he said.
Sweeney said he empathizes with the business owners, who have told him they made it through the COVID-19 lockdowns and "now they're challenged with some circumstances and situations beyond their control."
The encampment at 100 Victoria Street "is representative of a larger societal problem" in the region, he said.
A point-in-time count last September found more than 1,000 people were experiencing homelessness, with nearly half chronically homeless.
"At a regional level, we spend every day helping and supporting people through income support and rent subsidy support and building affordable housing units to try to stem the tide of this challenge," Sweeney said.
"My ask of the community is that we think about this as a systemic community challenge that is going to require all levels of government, civil society and private and public sectors to work together."
'We want to see them housed'
Ayman Eldesouky runs Worth A Second Look, a thrift store across the street from the encampment. The store is a project of The Working Centre. It's also in the same building as St. John's Kitchen, which provides meals and 24-hour access to washrooms to the people living at the encampment. The building also has security.
He says they haven't experienced many problems in the store beyond some shoplifting and they've heard news of overdoses, which is upsetting.
He sympathizes with the businesses that are facing problems, but also urges people not to be afraid of people living in the encampment.
"They need someone to listen to them," he said.
"From the store, if they need anything, we can give it to them. They are part of the community, right?"
The fact that they're part of the community is exactly why Spieker says she wants to see them get help.
"This seems to be put out in the public [and] media as, this is an affordable housing crisis, but we have a front row seat and this is a substance abuse issue and I don't see any help for their substance abuse issues," she said.
"We want to see these people get the help that they need. We want to see them housed," Spieker added.
"When they're doing well, they're great people. But when you're on drugs, you're unpredictable and you're not always nice, so it's a problem for us."
Sometimes seen as the 'enemy'
The Waterloo Regional Police Service said on Wednesday that since July 1, there had been 16 calls in total for the area near the encampment — the equivalent of a call every 1.6 days. Of those 16 calls, five were proactive calls initiated by officers.
Harrison says it's "very important to not misconstrue a lot of what the businesses are saying" to mean they don't care.
"There's no proper hygiene. The rodents and the bugs and them living out in the open there. They're hurting each other and they're hurting the community," she said.
"I think that sometimes they see us as like the enemy, that we're just a business that doesn't care about the people when we should be doing more. And that's not the case at all," Harrison said, but added she also cares about her staff and ensuring their safety.
"It's because I care about my community that we've been pushing the region to do something."