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‘Please, please help us:’ Castlegar business community speaks about struggles with homeless population

Business owners, service providers and city hold meeting to discuss problems and solutions
A panel of service providers attended the meeting on homelessness for the business community. Photo: Betsy Kline

Business owners, service providers and city representatives gathered on July 11 for a discussion on homelessness in the community and how it is affecting local businesses.

In response to concerns from its members, the Castlegar Chamber of Commerce and the Community Integrated Services Collaborative (CISC) organized the meeting and invited both member and non-member business owners from the area. About 50 people attended.

The meeting kicked off with a panel of 10 representatives from area support agencies explaining the services they offer, but the majority of the meeting was spent hearing from businesses about how they have been impacted in the last few years by the increase in homelessness in the community.

Business concerns

The Way Out Homeless Shelter opened in early 2021 at 1660 Columbia Avenue, centralizing where housing and most of the support services for homeless and other vulnerable populations are located. Castlegar Community Services operates the shelter, and they say it has been at full capacity since opening and turning away three or more people each day.

The majority of people that spoke of their concerns at the meeting have businesses within one kilometre of the shelter.

Several key themes emerged including conflicts with violent aggressive individuals, passed out/sleeping individuals, vandalism to property, human waste on buildings/property, drug paraphernalia left at businesses and loss of staff from dealing with the problems.

Carmen Guido, owner of the Monashee office building across from Husky, talked of feeling isolated as a business owner when trying to deal with the above concerns.

She said she has called the city and police only to find out there is nothing they can do.

“It seems we are all on our own and we don’t know what to do,” said Guido.

She then recounted incidents of overdoses, complaints, potential loss of tenants and fearful employees.

“Please, please help us,” she said. “Let’s work together somehow.”

Craig Kalawsky, owner of Castlegar Toyota and Kalawsky Chevrolet, spoke of vehicles destroyed by arson, drug paraphernalia clean ups and people sleeping on the property.

He also talked about his frustrations with lack of communication from the city and the Chamber of Commerce.

“Who is representing us?” said Kalawsky. “Something is happening to many, many people and I believe we are getting one-offed and I don’t think that is fair.

“Where is our … high-profile MLA in all of this?”

Kalawsky and Wayne Groom, owner of Common Grounds, both mentioned that the increasing costs for clean up and security mean that the cost of their products will have to go up.

“We just spent $8,700 changing two doors and two windows … and started hiring people to come in at 5:30 in the morning to clean up the feces before people come in to buy their coffee,” said Groom.

Tim Kenna, the owner of Dairy Queen, says the restaurant’s bathroom has become a popular spot for drug users to shoot up.

“I expect to find a dead person in my bathroom one of these days,” he said.

He has to deal with people passed out in there, leaning against doors so they can’t be opened. He has also found people storing their drugs in the restaurant’s bathrooms. He recounted one time when so much blood was on the floor that the RCMP started looking for someone who had probably died.

“I have mostly young staff working for me … it is really scary for me.”

He also spoke of aggressive individuals yelling at and threatening customers and staff and even climbing on the roof and lighting a bonfire.

“I am the closest restaurant to the shelter … this was not happening three years ago.”

Dan Zoobicoff said he has spent $40,000 to install cameras at the building he owns that houses Fabricland and Selkirk Eyecare. He too has faced similar situations to the others.

During a poll of audience members, the majority of attendees said they had concerns regarding aggressive behaviours, vandalism, drug paraphernalia, isolation, theft, buildings used as bathrooms, remediation costs and the continuing escalation of the problems.

Chamber executive director Tammy Verigin-Burk summarized that she had heard from members that they felt “hopeless, helpless, hapless.”

“I think the city has done some great steps with forming the collaborative and bringing this meeting together,” added Verigin-Burk.

“It is about the whole economy. If we have the business community … feeling like they don’t want to do business anymore here, our community fails. If we can’t get services for our homeless community, our community fails.”

The city and the collaborative committee

Castlegar CAO Chris Barlow spoke to the city’s role in the situation.

“Traditionally the City of Castlegar had not had a role in homelessness,” said Barlow. “That has changed over the last couple of years.

“We found out that there were a lot of organizations doing good work in the community related to the population, but they were not necessarily communicating or working collaboratively …”

The groups were also not connected with the city or emergency services.

Barlow said that is why the city decided to take a leadership role and create the Community Integrated Services Collaborative. The city funded a facilitator position to coordinate the group. Barlow and Mayor Kirk Duff are part of the group.

Rona Park, the facilitator for CISC reports that there are about 25 people on the committee with about 15 attending each monthly meeting.

She also says that at any given time, there are about 70 - 80 people without a permanent residence in the city.

Park said the collaborative began by looking at what exists and what is missing. That master list guides the goals the group works on including applying for grant applications to increase services.

Solution suggestions

The Chamber of Commerce had been collecting solution suggestions prior to the meeting that included more housing, more supportive/recovery housing, training for businesses and better communication.

Additional ideas were expressed at the meeting itself including more public washrooms, hiring homeless/vulnerable people to assist in clean up, an overdose prevention site, a drop-in centre with extended hours, lockers for storage of possessions, more accessible sharps containers and a guide to help businesses know how to address different scenarios.

Community Harvest Food Bank president Deb McIntosh pointed out that a lot of the members of the local homeless population are not addicted to drugs.

“They are simply house-less,” she said.

“Another thing we have to understand is that we don’t need to molly-coddle anyone. Criminal behaviour is criminal behaviour and vandalism is vandalism and we have to stop making excuses for some of these people.”

McIntosh added that she thought people should not get away with things just because they are homeless or addicted.

“They have to conform to the same rules of society that we do and we have to start realizing it. We can love them to death … by making excuses for them.

“I am the biggest lefty do-gooder out there, but we have to draw a line.”

The CISC encouraged more business owners to join the collaborative and promised more meetings in the future to help the business community.

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Betsy Kline

About the Author: Betsy Kline

After spending several years as a freelance writer for the Castlegar News, Betsy joined the editorial staff as a reporter in March of 2015. In 2020, she moved into the editor's position.
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