Social disorder in public spaces on the rise in Calgary: report

Click to play video: 'New report recommends several changes to address social disorder in Calgary'
New report recommends several changes to address social disorder in Calgary
WATCH: A new report is highlighting several gaps in Calgary’s social safety net. It recommends several changes to help address social disorder in public and on the transit network. Adam MacVicar reports. – May 28, 2024

A new report by Vibrant Communities Calgary found that social disorder is on the rise in Calgary, and incidents are increasingly happening in public spaces like transit.

The 58-page report, titled “No Place To Go,” found that calls for police related to social disorder at LRT stations across Calgary have sharply increased in 2021 and 2022. In 2023, calls for service were back to pre-pandemic levels.

The report defines social disorder as conversations from transit peace officers or Calgary Police Service officers related to littering, loitering, fare evasion and urinating or defecating in transit stations. However, they are not usually criminal in nature.

Calls for police related to mental health concerns have increased by 38 per cent from 2018 to 2022, the report said.

“Safety issues in our communities is something that we’ve been looking at for the past couple of years. But we wanted to understand how social disorder is experienced from multiple perspectives,” said Lee Stevens, policy and research specialist at VCC.

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Impact of toxic drug crisis on students

There was also a 186 per cent increase in toxic drug deaths in the Calgary zone from 2016 to 2023, and they are happening more and more in public spaces. In 2023, public spaces accounted for 53 per cent of toxic drug deaths in Calgary, a major shift from previous years where deaths mostly occurred in private spaces.

Fentanyl is the most common substance causing toxic drug deaths in Calgary (65 per cent in 2023), followed by methamphetamine (49 per cent) and cocaine (31 per cent).

Reports of encampments also increased by 410 per cent in 2023 compared with 2018, and many Calgarians that researchers interviewed said the CTrain network sees more social disorder than the bus system.

The report said Chinook, Marlborough Mall, Sunalta and Victoria Park stations have been “particularly problematic” in terms of social disorder, along with stations along the Free Fare Zone downtown.

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However, the lack of daytime options for people experiencing homelessness is a big reason why many shelter users spend time on transit, including in CTrain stations.

Many police officers and transit peace officers who were interviewed also said homeless shelters are often perceived as “inadequate and unsafe.” The report said a lot of people are afraid of their belongings getting stolen, afraid of catching disease or afraid for their own personal safety.

“We need to look at more resources for shelters, and all of these things lead to needing more housing. These (issues) can easily be approached through a housing-first solution,” said Meaghon Reid, executive director of VCC.

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The report also noted that police, transit officers and community workers are experiencing trauma from being on the frontlines, and it is becoming more and more common. With more housing, the better the outcomes are going to be when we’re looking at things like social disorder and solving the problem,” said Meaghon Reid, executive director of VCC.

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However, the report said police often struggle to connect individuals to medical care due to a lack of treatment and harm reduction options.

Researchers also said there is no relationship between adding more police and reducing crime, suggesting it is a short-term solution at best.

“All of these are very interconnected (to public safety). That’s why we need outreach teams. We need social workers and mental health clinicians and other folks working side-by-side with the police,” Stevens said.

“I think police officers are one part of the solution, but we also need those outreach teams as well, and ideally better-coordinated outreach and 24/7 outreach as well.”

Reid said she hopes the report will compel municipal, provincial and federal officials to work together to find housing and affordability solutions.

“We wanted to really inform decision makers at all orders of government and people who can really influence solutions to this situation,” she said.

“But I think we also wanted to highlight this reality for people who are users of public transit or people in Calgary who experienced social disorder, to be able to say this is a pretty complex issue and there isn’t one simple answer.”

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the report is important and straightforward and emphasizes that the city must work with the provincial government to find solutions to the housing and affordability crisis. She told reporters on Tuesday that many of the recommendations in the report are outside the city’s jurisdiction.

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“We’ve been trying to look at outreach. We have been trying to implement housing solutions, and we can’t do it alone. So the thing that I take away from Vibrant Communities Calgary is that we need to have greater support from our provincial government,” she said.

“We cannot afford to wait to help people in positions of vulnerability, and that’s why city council has made so many decisions in the interest of those folks that need us right now … We’ve said if nobody else is interested in supporting vulnerable people, we certainly are.”

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said communities are stronger when people look out for those who are “falling on hard times.” He told reporters that he is committed to supporting to community partners on the front lines of the housing crisis.

“When I think of the recommendations in that report in particular, all of them need to be given a fair look. And ultimately, the City of Calgary has done an awful lot of heavy lifting when it comes to girding up the social safety net,” he said. “And we need partners to be able to continue to do that and especially if we’re going to talk about expanding that safety net.”

CPS Supt. Scott Boyd told Global News in an emailed statement that police work closely with the city to address crime, social disorder and public safety concerns in public spaces.

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However, Boyd said the police’s primary role is enforcement.

“We always attempt to lead with compassion and service, but enforcement is a critical component of ensuring Calgarians have safe public spaces to enjoy. We recognize this, and as such, we work with community agencies to ensure all Calgarians are safe and provided with resources if needed,” Boyd’s statement read.

In response to the report, a spokesperson for Social Services Minister Jason Nixon sent the following email:

“The conclusions suggested by this report are inaccurate and do not reflect the reality of services provided in Calgary. For example, Alberta shelters are already fully funded for around the clock supports – including daytime service.

“The province is investing nearly $84 million in Calgary to ensure over 2,000 shelter spaces are open 24/7 and community groups are ready to support those experiencing homelessness. To build on these investments and expand on the great results we’ve seen in Edmonton, our government will also be opening a Navigation and Support Centre in Calgary.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions added social disorder and addictions challenges are not unique to Calgary.

“Every jurisdiction across North America is facing an addiction crisis,” said Hunter Baril, the ministry’s press secretary. “This has no doubt had its impact on public safety which is why we are taking action in Calgary and province-wide.”

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Baril continued to say the United Conservative government is building treatment centres across Alberta, including one in Calgary later this year.

“With a continued focus on building the Alberta Recovery Model, more people will access life-saving services to help them overcome the deadly disease of addiction,” the press secretary said.
“This is what Albertans expect: a government that supports recovery, not the ongoing facilitation of addiction with failed policies adopted by other jurisdictions.”

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