Legacy business owners in Vancouver’s Chinatown who say street disorder is worse than ever voiced their public safety concerns at a special council meeting Thursday, as the city’s police chief called for the province to better respond to a host of social issues converging in the Downtown Eastside, Gastown and Chinatown.
For the last two decades, Tracy To has worked six days a week at her family-owned business in Chinatown.
Forum Home Appliances opened in 1988 on East Pender Street, where To and her siblings have witnessed the situation outside their doors slowly deteriorate.
“The level of chaos now is 10 times worse than what it was in 2010,” To told Global News on Friday.
To said she doesn’t typically feel unsafe in the historic neighbourhood and street disorder is not new but it is “worse than it ever was before.”
From being pepper sprayed and robbed of air conditioners one summer, to having female staff members physically attacked while walking to or waiting at bus stops, arriving at work to mattress and garbage fires set around the building or the “non-stop graffiti, defecation, needles in doorways,” To said her family has seen it all.
The perception of danger is also very damaging to their business as longtime customers are afraid to visit Chinatown, she said.
“With all the Asian hate crimes and hypodermic needle stabbings, they don’t want to be the next victim,” To told city council at the April 28 meeting.
On March 8, Vancouver police said 41-year-old woman walking near Main and East Pender Streets was attacked by a stranger who stuck a needle in her leg.
The VPD arrested a female suspect in the alleged assault, while a separate female suspect was also arrested in another alleged random hypodermic needle stabbing near East Pender and Abbott Streets last October.
On Saturday, the guardian stone lions at the Millennium Gate were vandalized for the second time this month, after being repeatedly targeted by vandals sometimes with explicitly racist graffiti.
The walls of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden have also been hit with graffiti multiple times.
And the recent attempted theft of a symbolic dragon lantern on Pender Street in broad daylight was especially disturbing to the neighbourhood’s legacy business association.
“It really strikes at the heart of the community,” Henry Tom with the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association said Thursday.
Much of the mayhem is happening within metres of the Chinatown community policing centre which opened in May 2021.
“That increased police presence has not yielded results,” Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group co-chair Michael Tan told Global News Friday.
CCTV, Tan said, has also been ineffective in deterring street disorder and vandalism.
Using the existing police deployment to Chinatown in more efficient ways and better engaging with the community would be more effective, Tan believes.
Vancouver police are also being tasked with too much, he said. Officers should focus on violent crime, while more funding should be directed to social services, not police, he said.
“That’s akin to holding up a tea towel to an open fire hydrant,” said Tan.
“We’re trying to mop up the water or shovel water left and right but it just continues to pour out. That’s why we need things like mental health supports, drug addiction treatment and supportive housing to really turn off that fire hydrant.”
Vancouver Police Chief Const. Adam Palmer said the province needs to better coordinate a holistic safety plan to tackle the area’s multiple overlapping issues including poverty, mental health and addiction, housing, and criminal justice, which are each handled by a different B.C. government ministry.
“Nobody’s in charge of the grand picture in particularly troubled neighbourhoods in our city like the Downtown Eastside, Gastown, Chinatown,” Palmer told city council Thursday.
“Who’s bringing that all together? It’s too disjointed.”
B.C.’s public safety ministry said it’s working across government and with local governments to find solutions to address public safety concerns, but there’s no single answer.
“A multi-level approach is necessary and includes mental health supports and prosecution efforts in addition to policing and other resources,” the ministry said in a statement.
“We need support from all three levels of government in order to make Chinatown a wonderful place again,” To told Global News.
In the meantime, To said Chinatown is open for business and is encouraging customers to visit. The more people on the streets, she said, the safer it will be.