Vancouver mayoral candidates debate how to make Chinatown, DTES safer

The rise in street crime and random violence currently plaguing Vancouver is particularly noticeable in Chinatown.

On Saturday, five of the mayoral candidates gathered for an often controversial town hall meeting aimed at revitalizing the Downtown Eastside historic district.

The first question: How would you make the streets safe again in the first few months of your tenure?

ABC mayoral candidate Ken Sim says he would ask the Vancouver Police Department to hire 100 additional officers and 100 mental health nurses.

TEAM Vancouver candidate Colleen Hardwick is also in favor of strengthening the VPD.

“I think the most important thing in front of the gate is that we need police boots on the ground. We need police officers to walk Chinatown and personally connect with business owners, seniors and local residents,” Hardwick said, adding, “Driving past is not enough.”

Instead of adding more police, incumbent Kennedy Stewart is instead promising to hire 25 counselors trained in mental health and addiction to focus on nonviolent issues where people struggle with mental health issues and addictions.

“Everyone agrees that we’re not going to work our way out here through arrests, everyone except my opponents here who think we should put people in jail with mental illness and substance abuse problems,” Stewart said.

NPA candidate Fred Harding says Stewart failed to show leadership on the issue, which is why street crime increased during his tenure.

“We have to arrest the people who are making the streets unsafe,” Harding said. “We can’t keep living in this fantasy land where we’re soft on every subject or afraid to approach an issue with determined leadership because you’re afraid of what people will think of you.”

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According to Hardwick, some of Stewart’s policies make Vancouver a destination for homeless people from other parts of Canada.

“Come down, we’ll give you a free apartment, free drugs. Why don’t you come to Vancouver?” she said. “If the tone from above, that is, from the mayor, is, ‘Come down, Vancouver is a destination for homelessness,’ then we’re never going to solve this problem.”

Harding agreed, saying, “Until we actually solve the root causes of what people are doing down here, we’re never going to end this.” What Colleen says is correct, they will keep coming back. You will keep coming back”

Stewart said he was surprised by these comments.

“That kind of lack of compassion is so depressing. That’s not how a mayor acts,” he said.

But Harding argues that Stewart’s actions have hurt communities like Chinatown.

“It’s not a lack of compassion, it’s about leadership and actually saving lives,” he said. “The problems I see in Chinatown walking around are absolutely solvable.”

While several candidates were discussing how to dismantle homeless camps like the current one on East Hastings Street, candidate Mark Marissen had a different idea.

“I would identify some municipal lots for some intentional encampments where there would be washrooms, showers and security where people in the encampments could feel safe,” Marissen said, adding that the encampments would be temporary until one is permanent accommodation could be found.

Stewart balked at the idea.

“These are our neighbors,” he said. “These are not refugees to be put in any camp. These are people who need deep nurturing.”

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Sim argued that relocating people from the camps to shelters is difficult because the single occupancy units are often inferior to those on the streets.

“Many of these units are uninhabitable. They are infested with rodents. In the height of summer they can be over 45 degrees indoors,” Sim said. “We will be moving to quality housing so people can and will live in these units.”

Sim believes the mayoral race is between him and Stewart, who beat him by less than 1,000 votes last time out.

“It’s a choice between more of the same with Mr. Stewart or change. So Vancouver residents have a choice,” Sim said.

The city’s election for mayor will be announced on October 15 when the ballots are counted on the night of the municipal elections.

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