By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Downtown councillor Jason Farr wants to make it clear any crackdown on people in the core will be due to criminal activities and not for loitering, panhandling or just being homeless.
Farr, chairing the Task Force on Cleanliness and Security meeting July 14, said there were some misconceptions from the public after a May meeting where a proposal was made to look at a Barrie bylaw that would allow police to clean up nuisance activities such as spitting and loitering. It was suggested at the committee look at a three-year pilot program that would have included adding a full-time municipal bylaw officer and a police officer to monitoring the core area.
However, Farr said that Hamilton won’t be going down that road and will instead be enforcing the existing bylaws through the Hamilton Police Service.
The proposed bylaw was contemplated after the Argon Properties Limited property manager Irene Hubar complained to staff and politicians about the criminal activities that have become an on-going issue in front of the former Right House. She said drug dealing, public urination, and assaults are common place incidents. Recently, police arrested a person carrying a hatchet while in the building. Hubar said potential businesses looking to lease space in the building have rejected the idea, saying “they couldn’t believe what was going on.”
And companies that use the building are looking to relocate because they fear for their employees’ safety, she said.
“If something doesn’t happen I don’t know what will happen,” she said. “It’s getting worse.”
Security guard Randy Gordon, who has worked for the company for about five years, calls the people standing outside the building “the usuals.” He said he has been assaulted about three times.
Hubar said she recently installed new cameras at the front of the building at a cost of about $7,000.
“We are doing what we can,” she said.
Hubar had made the complaint to the same committee in May. Subsequently, she has been criticized and subjected to protests from anti-poverty activists for what they believe is an attempt to forcibly remove vulnerable people.
“I never mention homelessness or poverty,” Hubar told committee members, as a few anti-poverty activists sat in the gallery.
Hamilton Police Inspector Scott Rastin said it’s not illegal to panhandle, nor is it a crime to loiter in a public area. It’s also not illegal to be homeless, but it is illegal to panhandle aggressively he said.
Tom Cooper, executive director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, said the city still has a significant poverty issue that has created inequities among groups. He said people living in poverty don’t have anywhere to go. There are no day programs, there are limited employment opportunities for youth, so they congregate among themselves, he said.
“There is a need for additional resources from the province,” he said.
Rastin said a new bylaw isn’t necessary since the available legal enforcement is already in place. Over a four-year period from 2009 to 2013 overall violent crime has dropped in Hamilton by 19 per cent, the largest drop in Canada, he said.
Downtown is still the focus of overall violent crime, he said.
He said the police are “doing some enhanced visibility” with its ACTION team that includes “selected drug enforcement,” which he was reluctant to provide further details on. So far about five people have been arrested with drug-related charges.
But he said a police response isn’t the total answer to what is a community issue.
“This is an on-going four to five month issue,” he said. “This is not just a police problem. We need to create a long-term solution. We will be working with all the stakeholders.”