‘Goodies on George’ closing, owner says public perception of Peterborough homeless is deterring customers
Shahab Stanikzai boasts of his store’s loyal clientele.
“Hey man,” said a customer that Stanikzai immediately recognizes as he walks into the small George Street store. “You still have the jerk chicken one?”
Like most of the clients that Stanikzai caters to, the customer is a regular, isn’t from Canada, and is looking for imported goods.
Bearing a bright red sign, “Goodies on George” became known for its selection of international foods and ingredients, which Stanikzai says are hard to come by outside of Toronto. The store is operated by Stanikzai seven days a week. The owner, Stanikzai’s brother Abdulmajeed, is currently in Afghanistan.
Recently, Stanikzai had to deliver Abdulmajeed, and his customers, some terrible news.
“Now when I’m talking to people that I’m going to sell the store because we don’t have enough customers, they are very upset,” said Stanikzai. “They say: ‘if you close, we all are going to go back to Toronto to get all our ingredients.'”
Stanikzai emphasizes that his low sales have nothing to do with consumer interest. It’s that his sales won’t go up because his customers are being deterred by something bigger.
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“A lot of complaints that I heard from people [are] that they don’t feel safe coming to this area,” said Stanikzai.
“Where we are, we are in the middle of a place that there’s a lot of people that are out of their jobs and they’re all standing around here. So when it’s a little bit darker, nobody wanted to come to the store because they might feel unsafe.”
Stanikzai claims the homeless who occasionally sit curbside on George Street yell and heckle passersby, especially young students coming out of bars late at night. He even says he discontinued selling lottery tickets at his store because the homeless would come in looking for them, and create a commotion that scares customers in the process.
While Stanikzai says he sympathizes with the homeless, and even offers his merchandise for free as long as they pay him back later, he still believes they might seem “scary” to his young customers, and to locals walking downtown trying to get to his store.
Even though most of what Stanikzai cites might be seen as hearsay and speculation, he isn’t the first to sound the alarm on the homeless issue in downtown Peterborough.
City councillor Stephen Wright has been vocal on wanting tangible solutions for those living on the streets. Numerous local activists, and former staff of the Warming Room shelter, have hosted events in the homeless’ plea.
After the Warming Room’s closure on July 1, more than 40 homeless slept in tents set up at Victoria Park for close to two months. The city issued the homeless an order of an eviction 54 days later, on Aug 23, and passed a bylaw alongside the county a week prior to that, effectively banning tenting in public parks.
“I think that’s just a sign of larger issues going on in our community,” said Joel Wiebe, communications manager at the Peterborough Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA). “As we’ve seen with tents in parks throughout the city, we have housing challenges in the city, and when people don’t have places to be, they congregate outdoors.”
Peterborough is currently battling an affordable housing crisis, with a 1 per cent rental vacancy rate reported in 2018.
Last year, city councillors backed a province-led initiative to make installing second-suite units within homes easier. The suites make it possible for an average home owner to rent out their basement as a separate apartment, opening up vacancy in the city.
Still, only 198 rental units have been created in Peterborough through conversions over the last five years. Additionally, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation found that an average renter had to have an annual income of $44,100, before taxes, to rent a newly-converted bachelor, and an income of $54,000, before taxes, to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Peterborough.
The CMHC report also found rental units that were converted out of non-residential structures were almost 9.5 per cent more expensive than purpose-built apartment units. The converted units were estimated to be affordable to only 29-25 per cent of average renters, according to CMHC.
Peterborough’s deputy police chief Tim Farquharson feels for Stanikzai’s situation.
“We understand how it can be a problem for downtown business owners,” said Farquharson. “These people might be trying to make a living but are having people scared away from their storefronts.”
But Farquharson said public complaints to police regarding downtown safety usually come from the public’s inaccurate perception of the homeless.
“A lot of it stems from mental health issues, ” said Farquharson. “These [homeless] people might look different, or might even be talking to themselves, and it can also be addiction issues.
“So these [homeless] might not be hurting anybody, but if they’re sometimes yelling or something, they’re not considered criminal offences, but it does cause disorderly conduct.”
These disturbances, Farquharson emphasizes, don’t mean the downtown area is necessarily “unsafe.”
“We’re not getting an increase on criminal activity in the downtown over the last five years than in somewhere in the north-end for example,” said Farquharson.
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Paul Longhurst, international student advisor at Trent University’s international office, says he hasn’t heard complaints from students on downtown safety recently.
“Some students have expressed [in the past] concerns partly towards what they’ve read from the media, or from personal experience,” said Longhurst.
“The recent occupance of people in tent city in the downtown core has pushed the issue of homelessness and poverty to the forefront, and so it’s concerned some of the students who were coming here.”
Still, Longhurst said international students questioning a city’s safety is a normal part of their transition, regardless of whether homeless people are occupying that area or not.
But it seems there’s still something to be said about how the homeless have changed the public’s perception of the downtown area. In 2018, Peterborough’s ‘Area 2,’ which covers a large portion of the north-end but also includes areas around Victoria Park, had the highest reported crime calls and calls for service when compared to other areas.
This is a trend that Peterborough police say has continued over the past couple of years.
Farquharson said police assigned eight officers in total to patrol the downtown area this summer, four more than regular. Their aim was to help change the public’s negative perception of the downtown and the homeless. They also did the same last year in response to the same complaints.
“I think if the [homeless] issue were fixed, it would help change the perception of an unsafe downtown a little bit, yes,” said Farquharson. “But the addiction issues need to be addressed too.”
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Farquharson says Peterborough police don’t have “a lot of tools to deal” with people using drugs publicly.
“It doesn’t help when they are incarcerated and locked up out of sight,” he said. “What they need is to be directed away from drugs.”
Farquharson said police have been pushing towards establishing a diversion program for addicts, where people using drugs publicly would be apprehended, rather than arrested, and taken to ‘persuasion courts’, rather than criminal courts.
The courts would be led by mental health workers and lawyers who can connect the addicts with the appropriate agencies that help tackle their addiction.
This protocol has been reported to be successful in countries like Portugal, sparking Canadian members of parliament to consider adopting it here.
While Farquharson said “most community agencies agree” that this approach is where Peterborough needs to be headed, it will take quite some time to create noticeable change.
“One of the key points we put forward to the province is teaching youth resilience against drugs in schools,” he said. “That will take time, years, to take shape as their generation gets older.”
But the longer that affordable housing remains out of reach, and addiction diversion programs and mental health services remain hard to come by, the longer the homeless stay downtown, and the longer the negative perception — that apparently caused Stanikzai to shutter his store — lingers.
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