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Treading a fine line between personal safety and individual rights

Despite trumpeting the success of Hamilton’s downtown, there remains a constant fear by residents, especially in the suburban areas, that if they take in a show at Theatre Aquarius, or eat in a nice restaurant on James Street, they’ll be walking through a dangerous concrete jungle.

The latest example comes from a property manager at the former Right House on King and Hughson streets. At wits end, she appealed to council, city staff and Hamilton Police to do something about incidents of public urination, assaults and persistent drug dealing in front of the building. In one recent incident a person carrying a hatchet through the lobby was apprehended by the police. It’s another example of how Hamilton’s downtown’ image still remains sullied. A few years ago people gathering in Gore Park prompted consternation from local business owners and people who felt threatened walking through the area.

There is also the perception the police are reluctant to do anything about those causing the problems. If they try to get tough with the people who loiter, they are subjected to criticism for criminalizing the poor, and stepping on a person’s rights and liberties.

But the assaults, drug dealing and general misbehavior continues to put the improvements that have been made in the area at risk. The property manager says a business looking for space rejected her building because of the activities that were going on along the sidewalk and that the businesses already located in the building are threatening to leave if nothing is done.

Poverty activists don’t condone any criminal activity, but they plead with people to look at the driving forces behind poverty, including the lack of jobs, limiting housing choices and the mental health issues that affect a disproportionate number those in poverty. They call for a more holistic solution to the problem involving health care professionals, police, business owners and politicians. It’s an approach that has been done before to limited success.

There is a fine line between protecting individual’s rights and safeguarding the broader public from abusive behaviour, and police and the law must tread carefully in defining that line.

For the most part, Hamilton’s core has improved since amalgamation, but all the energy and vibrancy coming into the centre of the city may be for naught unless downtown can truly shed its checkered reputation and become a place where all Hamiltonians feel at home.

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