A potential solution for increased crime in the area west of Muskoseepi Park is in the works. The City of Grande Prairie is looking at leasing out the Parkside Inn at 100 Avenue and 105 Street and having the Canadian Mental Health Association run it as 24-hour supportive housing.
While the area has had issues for some time, Public Safety Superintendent Chris Manuel says they worsened quickly last fall. He explains when there was a cold snap some people with issues with housing or shelter were put up in motel rooms without the needed supports by local agencies.
“That combined with what is just regular private business at cheaper hotel rental rates led to a greater density of people that are engaged in a variety of street activities than otherwise would be found at a particular location,” Manuel says. “We had a higher concentration of some social disorder and, in some cases, criminal activity.”
The residents being helped by the local agencies are considered to have complex needs, which could be related to being street engaged, having mental health challenges, or addiction issues. Manuel says those who were vulnerable were likely then preyed upon by others.
“They bully them, they take over their rooms and space, and they use them as a base for their illicit activities. The challenge in a really uncontrolled environment like what we have is identifying who should be there from who shouldn’t be there; who the bad people are from those that are just really suffering from other challenges.”
What’s being proposed for the location is using funding from the Government of Alberta to turn it into a facility with 24-hour support workers, on-site security, and controlled access. The idea was presented for the first time to a group of more than 50 concerned residents, business owners and others affected Wednesday night.
Those in attendance shared their concerns regarding everything from drug use and trafficking to suspicious people on their property and theft. John Evans was instrumental in putting together the community meeting and says it was long overdue.
“This is the community engagement which the city and agencies should have had before any action had taken place. I hope the agencies, police and the city truly heard what the community had to say.”
Grande Prairie RCMP Operations Officer Inspector John Respet understands their frustration and admits more likely could have been done to communicate with neighbours. He wants to make it clear that police are passionate about finding a solution.
“It breaks my heart that people feel that they aren’t able to go for evening walks or walk their dogs or things like that, so I just wanted them to feel reassured that we recognize there are issues and we’re all over it working with our community partners.”
Many members of the public were calling for the Parkside Inn to be shut down, but Manuel says the process isn’t a simple one as the city doesn’t hold hotel business licences. The provincial Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, however, can temporarily close homes and businesses regularly used for criminal activities. They are involved at this point.
Respet adds that the people abusing the location would simply move their operations, which is why he supports the supportive housing model.
“It might mitigate what is currently going on. Whether it displaces some of the criminality, yes, we’re aware of that, but we then adjust our resources to pay attention to the individuals or the criminality if it leaves that area.”
Respet says it’s important for people and businesses to report all suspicious and potentially criminal activity even if it doesn’t require a police presence because that data helps the RCMP know where to put their attention. He says people with bikes should also make sure to register their serial number in the case they are stolen.
“It’s very difficult to prove ownership or, conversely, to accuse anybody of being in possession.”
Because the proposal to transform the Parkside Inn property would mean a change in land use, a development permit for discretionary use would be required. That means the community would be able to give their feedback before a city committee makes a decision.
Manuel says that although the motel’s owners may have been a bit naive to what was going on around their business, they have been cooperative in finding a solution. He maintains they want to get to that point by September before the winter weather hits again.
“Nobody is content with the status quo. We’re all working on solutions and strategies that we can use to improve the situation for the residents and the businesses in that neighbourhood; we want people to feel safe.”
In the meantime, RCMP plan to pay more attention to their response time in the area and increase patrols, including by foot and bicycle.