Police keeping close eye on Johnson Street community

Some residents claim they’re suffering “extreme criminalization”

Some former tent city residents now living in the largest single low-barrier housing facility in the province claim their living conditions have gotten worse since moving indoors.

In an open letter recently posted on its website, Super Intent City (a group made up of former tent city residents and advocates), claims those now living at 844 Johnson St. have had their privacy and freedom violated with doors taken off washrooms in suites, the requirement of ID from guests, constant surveillance with video cameras and a police presence nearly every day.

“We are suffering extreme criminalization. It feels like we are living in a jail and our rooms replicate jail cells,” said the letter. “At tent city, we created our own communities and experienced belonging and control over our own lives. Under the management of PHS (Portland Hotel Society), our choices, ideas and participation are ignored and disrespected.”

Purchased by the province to house those living on the lawns of the Victoria courthouse for several months, the Johnson Street facility accommodates 147 residents and provides two meals a day. There’s also four mental health care workers there 24/7, two support home workers there five days a week, a full-time nurse and a physician who comes twice a week.

But the transition hasn’t been easy.

Since opening in late summer, the facility has generated much concern from area residents who said they’ve been harassed by people standing on the street in front of the building, the nights are often filled with screaming and other disturbances, and used needles have been found on the ground.

Andy Bond, senior director of housing for PHS, said much of those concerns and the impact residents are having on the neighbourhood have since been addressed. Earlier this year, 24-hour security was added to patrol a two-block area of Pandora Avenue and Johnson Street.

Victoria police have also dedicated a community resource officer to the building as the challenges continue with stabilizing a large group of people that haven’t been housed in years.

Police calls to the area have more than doubled since the facility opened, but many of those calls pertain to overdoses and mental health issues. The emergency response team has been utilized on a few occasions, noted acting police chief Del Manak, and there has been weapons calls and floor lockdowns as officers search for violent and dangerous individuals.

A few days ago, officers were called to the building four times in one night for a noise complaint, a fight between two tenants and someone running around in a violent manner. Drug dealers have also tried to access people in the building, with police responding to calls from tenants and staff for unwanted people on a regular basis.

Rather than having different officers respond on different occasions, Manak said it made sense to dedicate one community resource officer to develop a relationship and rapport with residents and staff.

“He’s not there poking his nose in when he’s not wanted. He’s there helping diffuse disagreements, arguments, give some advice and work with staff who are sometimes threatened,” said Manak, noting the officer isn’t on site every day.

The challenge, he added, is that some people don’t like the police or structure and want to be left alone, but allowing too much freedom and not enough structure eventually leads to the break down of the community.

“That’s the challenge is keeping that balance. We want to make sure the tenants feel safe and they have an opportunity to feel like they are not living under the scrutiny of the police, but we have to put door controls in,” said Manak. “People will try to come into the building that aren’t welcome and they are there to cause havoc and problems…The VicPD does not enforce its way into a situation that we’re not welcome.”

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