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‘Organized crime’: Victoria shoplifting wave often about clearing drug debts

Our Place details realities of the streets

For the most part, Grant McKenize does not classify Pandora Avenue as a dangerous street.

“I can see how people are uncomfortable. And a lot of that has to do with seeing people who are open to using drugs, people who are struggling with mental health,” said the director of communications at Our Place, which provides a plethora of services to Victoria’s unhoused community.

Our Place has been at 919 Pandora Ave. since the mid-1980s and tried to serve a need within the unhoused community but often can take the blame for the unhoused situation in Victoria, he said.

“What I find really bizarre is when people attack Our Place because we’re here. If we weren’t here, this place would be so much worse. You’re yelling at people who are trying to make a difference.”

McKenzie said it is one of the few businesses or charities operating on Pandora Avenue, and for the most part, shoplifting and similar crimes do not really happen down that street.

“We don’t have a lot of places that you can hit up for shoplifting on Pandora. They’re going to hit up the dollar store on Douglas, that kind of thing they will hit up.”

The crimes carried out aren’t so people can afford food, as the various kitchens around Victoria, such as Mustard Seed and Cool Aid, do a great job of trying to feed people, he said.

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“You can usually get a meal. The kitchens are great. But because of addiction, you have people who owe money. And so most of the shoplifting you’re seeing isn’t casual,” he said.

He said many stores allocate a budget for losses, often for teenagers and the unhoused. But there is also the organized crime aspect, and he said someone might ask an unhoused person to shoplift to clear their debt.

“What you’re seeing is not necessarily crimes of opportunity or crimes of survival, but organized crime. And that’s what the police are looking for. So it’s less about that casual crime and more about these organized crimes.

Pandora Avenue has a small black market, and organized gangs can send a request via various channels for someone to steal something from an upmarket retailer, McKenzie said.

“They might say, ‘I want Lululemon pants and a shirt this size and the colour,’ and they get people, most of them are homeless, most of them have criminal records and don’t care. And they will go and steal it.”

Pandora Avenue can seem like an unsettling place, but it can also be one of community and safety, according to McKenzie. But there are positives to the community on Pandora Avenue.

“It is those individuals that can get back on their feet and the love and support you see out there is amazing.”

McKenzie said that the love and support will extend to people walking down Pandora and that they will take extra steps when someone is walking down the street with a child.

“You’ll notice on Pandora someone is walking down, and they have a child, so you will hear, ‘Child on the block, child on the block, child on the block,’ and you will see people putting their crack pipes away and actual respect that they have for those people walking down the block with their children.”

Addiction can be compared to a parasitic worm, McKenzie said, one in which it does not care if its host lives or dies but only ever wants to be fed.

“So you can help someone, but they have this parasitic worm in them. That just does not care about what this place is. It just wants drugs,” he said. “A lot of times those of us who are not struggling with addiction, we tend to use logic. And this isn’t really a problem where logic is working.”

The added effect of an addiction epidemic makes the situation more challenging and needs more help addressing this crisis if people are going to get off the street permanently, he said.

“We need much more health support, more support for addiction. The addiction is to be seen. It’s an epidemic at this point.”

He said that there used to be a lot more drunks on the street, but this has quickly been replaced by crystal meth, which can be cheap as one or two dollars a hit.

“And that was deliberately done by the cartels to drive up demand for the meth.”

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About the Author: Thomas Eley

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