Landscaping plans for Alexander Street are on hold after residents and business owners in the area called on the city not to award the $152,359 contract in light of the ongoing safety concerns in the area.
The contract is proposed to go to Lane’s Yukon Yardworks.
At Whitehorse city council’s Aug 5 meeting, seven delegates described feeling unsafe in their own neighbourhood or at their workplace after witnessing fights, public intoxication, listening to shouting from those loitering in the area and the presence of emergency vehicles called on a daily basis.
Many argued dealing with the root causes of the issues need to take priority ahead of landscaping.
Melanie McFadyen, who’s lived on Alexander Street since 2003, said she appreciates the city’s efforts to beautify the downtown, but greater priority should be on heath and safety.
The situation is not only impacting residents and businesses, Joyce Mickey told council.
“We have a lot of tourists come to visit Whitehorse,” she said. “I’ve seen fear in these people as they walk through this area, hanging onto each other in a protective manner. This area is an eyesore.”
She described damage to planter boxes and other landscaping features outside the building where she lives. People sit on the planter boxes and plants and trees have been significantly damaged. Residents of the area are tired of cleaning up the mess of broken bottles and debris left behind by those who frequent the area.
“Right now, we have plants and we can’t keep them,” Mickey said, going on to argue planter boxes, benches and other features planned for the area would encourage more loitering.
All called for the city to cancel or at least postpone a decision on the landscaping contract, stating the proposal would make the current problem worse.
It was clear the rest of council and city staff were on the same page.
Acting city manager Valerie Braga said council members could defer until the next council meeting on Sept. 3 (with the Aug. 5 meeting being the last session before the annual summer break).
Braga suggested a deferral would give staff time to review the contract, issues, and look at procurement law before bringing a report back to council.
Coun. Jocelyn Curteanu said her daughter can’t walk from school to her father’s work because she’s afraid of the area. Coun. Steve Roddick noting that as a downtown resident he’s seen significant changes over the last couple of years.
There’s a need to balance the rights of area residents with the more vulnerable population who also have a right to enjoy public spaces, he said.
Mayor Dan Curtis was at a downtown business earlier that day where a large group was loitering outside the building.
There he counted 27 people, two bottles of vodka and one ambulance on the scene.
As he told reporters after the council meeting, the situation has changed dramatically in recent months and residents who were empathetic are becoming exasperated and frustrated.
“I think the exasperation is taking over,” he said.
Where a couple of years ago he would get about, maybe, two calls throughout the year about this type of issue, now it’s up to three or four calls a week.
The issue was the subject of a recent meeting between the city and the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services which operates the emergency shelter on Alexander Street.
Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost was at that meeting and Curtis said it’s clear the territory is taking the matter seriously and looking at how to address it.
“It’s something we all have to look at,” he said.
Frost is in Old Crow and was unavailable for comment.
In a written statement she said, “Engaging with our community partners is an incredibly important piece to ensuring the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter can become a place that is welcomed by all and helps all members of our community thrive. We need to work with all of our stakeholders from our First Nations governments, the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Whitehorse, NGOs and local residents, to achieve that.”
Following her meeting with city officials Frost said the department “will look to strike an interagency committee — government, NGOs, businesses — to share information and provide updates. We are also working together to examine options around improving community safety in the area.”
Acting Health and Social Services spokesman Nigel Allen said the department is working on changes to the shelter’s Alexander Street exterior in an effort to “create a safe and welcoming space for shelter clients to spend their time outdoors while accessing shelter services.
“This work is being done in consultation with our immediate business neighbours on Alexander, with shelter clients and our community partners.”
He emphasized the department will continue working with the city and acknowledged there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of clients accessing shelter services since the territorial government took over operations in January.
”We understand that this has heightened awareness about neighbourhood safety, and may be adding to these concerns,” he said.
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