Addiction, homelessness push London to a 'tipping point'

In a bid to reverse a recent rise in problems related to drug addiction and homelessness in downtown London areas, the city has unveiled a plan to better deal with people who need help and prevent more downtown businesses from closing shop.

City action plan address storefront vacancies, and perception that downtown is unsafe

A city report lays out a 69-point plan to deal with increasing problems in downtown London related to people affected by homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

In a bid to reverse a recent rise in problems related to drug addiction and homelessness in downtown London, the city has unveiled a plan to better help people and prevent more downtown businesses from closing shop.

The Core Area Action Plan released Wednesday lays out 69 steps to provide more supports for people who struggle with homelessness, addiction and mental health issues. It flags increasing problems with everything from people sleeping in storefronts, litter and the perception that parts of downtown have become unsafe. 

The scope and focus of the report isn't limited to the downtown core; it also includes Old East Village and Richmond Row.

Based on interviews with people who work and walk downtown, it points to an increase in threatening behaviour and intimidation. Other problems flagged include criminal activity in the open, including drug dealing. People using the sidewalk and alleyways to relieve themselves are another problem.

Much of the report focuses on how these problems have affected downtown merchants, and points to concerns about an increase in storefront vacancies. These issues, combined with ongoing downtown construction on York and Dundas Streets, have been a double-whammy for business owners. 

Staff fear the problems could undo positive steps downtown has made in recent years with the construction of Budweiser Gardens, the soon-to-be completed Dundas flex street and improvements to Covent Garden Market. 

"It's pretty clear that London is at a tipping point in terms of its core," said the city's Managing Director of Planning John Fleming. 

"What's at stake is our city image, our ability to attract talent and investment. The city has put a lot of investments into the core and this is about protecting those investments," he said. 

The fixes

The report's 69 steps are intended to prevent downtown decline. Most of them focus on helping people facing homelessness, drug addiction and mental health challenges. 

The report calls for everything from stepping up police patrols to offering new daytime resting spaces, as well as stabilization beds for people incapacitated in public spaces. It also calls for core area ambassadors to be hired to help people connect with services.  

Other fixes include getting a permanent supervised consumption site up and running and better ways to control and collect garbage downtown. 

It also calls for the city's coordinated, informed response program to be made permanent with a full-time manager. Part of that expansion will be a greater staff presence in the morning when people sleeping rough are waking up, and a breakfast program as a place to help people connect with services. 

Some of the programs will be created within existing city budgets, but others will require new operating funds. City Manager Martin Hayward estimates an extra $3.5 million will be needed. A case for this expenditure will be made when the city begins work on its new three-year budget, a process that starts in December. 

"There is a lot there to absorb, we're going to take it in stages," he said. "But to do nothing is not an option." 

Brahm Wiseman owns Heroes Comics on Dundas Street. He likes a lot of what he sees in the report. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"I don't think anyone has a fast and easy solution," said Brahm Wiseman, owner of Heroes Comics on Dundas Street. He's been doing business downtown for more than 20 years. Though he's seen challenges recently, he says he's an optimist and likes what he sees in the report. 

"I think the key is cleaning up the identity of downtown and reminding people that we have a great and thriving downtown. The real identity of all cities is their downtown. Without downtown, you're a giant doughnut with an empty middle," he said. 

The report will go before council's committee of the whole on Monday, and to full council the following day. 


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.