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Street drugs, gangs on rise in the West

Street drugs, gangs on rise in the West
'Street-level' social problems worst in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver: study
Larissa Liepins, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, September 12

Western Canadian cities are fighting a rising tide of street drugs and gang activity, says a report released Tuesday by the Canada West Foundation.

In researching Hard Times: A Portrait of Street Level Social Problems in Western Canada, the foundation consulted 311 frontline workers, experts and community leaders.

They found that "street-level social problems" are getting worse -- particularly in Vancouver, Calgary and
Edmonton -- and are concentrated in inner-city neighbourhoods. They are also interconnected and getting more complex and involve more young people.

The result, the report says, is a growing division in western cities between the affluent and the marginalized, higher long-term government service costs and loss of business and investment in downtown neighbourhoods.

While homeless people were more visible in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton -- the report found homeless transients tend to move between the three cities -- street gang activity is worse in Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, according to the study.

In Regina, "gang recruitment is rampant and children as young as nine years old are recruited to become drug runners," one participant said.

And although no city identified street prostitution as their greatest concern, they did note that sex trade workers are getting younger.

So are gang members, who are increasingly born into the gang and drug culture, the report says.

In Winnipeg, for example, "many aboriginals are born into gang membership," said one person consulted for the report.

"It is like a family business in this sense."

Young prostitutes are shuttled between gang houses in the city, allowing gangs to respond quickly to police crackdowns, and evade discovery and arrest, said one report participant.

While there are few homeless on the streets of Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, the homeless end up couch-surfing and living in dilapidated housing and crack houses, reads the report.

Vancouver's homeless count doubled between 2002 and 2005, Calgary saw a 32-per-cent increase between 2004 and 2006 and Edmonton saw a 19-per-cent increase in homeless people in the same period.

Many homeless suffer from untreated mental illnesses -- "often the underlying cause of addictions," reads the re-port.

"In addition to bigger cities, the pressures of growth put extra pressure on northern Alberta communities like Fort McMurray and Grand Prairie, where there is a severe lack of affordable housing," said Tom Shand, executive director of the Alberta division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

More counselling services and dedicated beds for psychiatric patients are desperately needed in the province, Shand said.

"In addition to more treatment, we need tougher laws for drugs," said Insp. Bob Ritchie of the Calgary Police Service.

Ritchie referred to the city's spike in violent crime this summer, with eight homicides in nine days at the end of July and beginning of August.

"But putting an officer on every street corner wouldn't solve the problem.

It would provide a perception of safety, but it wouldn't deal with the deep-down issues like addiction," Ritchie said.

© The Edmonton Journal 2007

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