Some Downtown Eastside business owners say the recent removal of tent encampments has done little to increase foot traffic in the area or improve their sense of safety.
A number of small business owners in the Hastings-Crossing neighbourhood say they are speaking out in hopes of saving their livelihoods, mental health and bringing about substantive changes to their area.
“I feel like it’s clear it’s been neglected,” said Linda Ly.
In 2015, Ly opened Onyx Nail Salon on Abbott Street, just off East Hastings Street. She says the area has declined considerably since, particularly during the pandemic.
She says worries for her and her all-female staff’s safety more than ever, and keeps her doors locked at all times.
“I’ve got spat on,” said Ly. “The [female staff] got chased here.”
Shortly after tents were formally removed on April 5 and 6, she says a naked man chased one of her employees into the salon and kept rattling the door after she ran inside and locked it.
Ly says she wants governments to move quicker in helping people struggling with mental health and drug use, and not just focus on cosmetic changes like removing tents.
Her neighbour, Rasa Shadmani, who owns Tanoor Pizza, is pushing for similar action.
Since tents were removed, she says more people have been camping and sleeping outside her front door.
She tries to help and offer food, but she says she finds most people are rarely hungry. Instead, she believes they need support in other ways.
“They need their space to live, they need home,” said Shadmani.
Shadmani adds that people experiencing mental health and drug use episodes end up in her restaurant at least four times a week.
It leaves her barely able to sleep, she says, worried for her employees and spending nearly all her waking hours at work.
Justin Hall, who works on Abbott Street, says he visits some of the nearby businesses and understands why some business owners are unhappy about interruptions inside their stores.
“People shouldn’t be allowed to go into businesses and cause a scene,” he said.
But he says he can’t see the problem going away until toxic drugs are no longer on the streets.
Chris D., who lives in the area, says addictions compounded by issues like sleep deprivation also make it challenging for people to control their behaviours.
A complex problem
Former provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall says the issues on the DTES have been compounded over the last decade by increasing poverty, toxic drugs and a shortage of mental health and primary care doctors.
He adds the continued criminalization of drugs under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is putting lives at risk.
“We need to have a discussion about is this really a sane policy or not,” he said.
He says he wants to see a regulated supply of drugs, much like alcohol or tobacco, but anticipates it is a “big political leap.”
“We’ve spent 30 years getting to this state and now we need to get out of it in less than 30 years.”