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Lynda Steele: Vancouver is becoming unsafe. It’s time to finally address the root causes and give repeat offenders the help they need – whether they want it or not.

So many broken windows, so few consequences.

Something’s happened to downtown Vancouver the past few years. I’m not entirely sure what’s fuelling the vandalism and violence, but I want it to stop.

There seems to be a core group of 200-300 people responsible for much of the mayhem. I’m not sure if they have some combination of mental health issues, and addictions – or if they’re just assholes who never face any consequences.

Business owners have told me that even if police are lucky enough to catch a suspect, the courts seem reluctant to lay charges if the person is “disadvantaged” in any way.

So it’s a vicious cycle: smash and grab, catch and release, repeat. Meanwhile shop owners in the downtown core are paying a phenomenal price. They're forced to replace expensive plate glass windows, often more than once. Dealing with insurance companies is a time-consuming hassle, so they often just pay out of pocket. Employees are rattled, worried that one day they’ll have to square off with a dude wielding a hatchet.

The sense out there is that thieves are getting way more violent and cocky, knowing workers have been told not to intervene. And really, who wants to get punched in the face over an armload of crap stolen from the dollar store?

Where are Vancouver police you ask? They seem to be running from call to call these days, and the culprit is usually gone by the time they arrive. So thieves get away with their loot, sell it for probably one tenth the value, then pick their next mark with no fear of getting caught.

It’s infuriating to me. It’s predatory behaviour and we’re all paying the price.

Vancouver is becoming a case study of Broken Windows Theory in real time. The basic premise is that visible signs of disorder – vacant store fronts, broken windows, trash on the streets – encourages more disorder, crime and bad behaviour. It also makes people feel unsafe.

I can attest to that.

I live downtown. I’m watching my beautiful Yaletown neighbourhood decline. In the past couple of years, we’ve had to call 911 to assist people overdosing in front of our garage door. My condo building’s intercom box was pried open and reprogrammed, allowing a thief to access our parkade and use bolt cutters to get into storage lockers and steal as much as he could carry.

The other day, a coat was lit on fire, leaving a smouldering, ashy mess. The commercial tenant in our strata had their front door smashed. Some goof graffitied the front of our building with neon orange spray paint. Not long ago, we had to powerwash pools of blood off the sidewalk in front of our entrance, after a bunch of drunken yobs had a late night knife fight.

Enough already.

I don’t want to feel unsafe in my own city. The violence, trash, and boarded-up windows in my neighbourhood make me feel sad and angry.

There are prolific violent shoplifters and break-and-enter artists, clearly not capable of making good decisions, and should not be left on the streets. I’m even more concerned about the people who randomly stab strangers in fast food joints, or punch blind seniors in a crosswalk. Who does that?

Many of these offenders have untreated mental health and addictions issues, but giving them a pass instead of addressing the root problem is insanity. If they need mental health treatment, the courts should insist they get it at a specialized in patient health care facility. If drug addiction is fueling criminal behaviour and multiple interactions with police? Then “sentence" them to a rehab facility with wraparound supports when their treatment is complete.

I can already hear activists railing, “forced treatment doesn’t work!” You know what else doesn’t work? Doing nothing. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure as hell not fair to the rest of us.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said recently that “jail is not the place” for these super offenders. On this point we mostly agree; Stewart and other metro mayors have lobbied the province to invest more in complex care housing to help vulnerable people dealing with mental health and addictions problems.

That specialized housing is finally coming, and it’s a good start. But the first four complex care locations will only house – get this – 100 people in Vancouver, Surrey, and Abbotsford. The province just announced another 50 complex care housing spaces for people in Langley and Fraser South. The funding will create a total of 500 spaces over the next three years. Truth is, we probably need 20 times that in BC, and we need it right now.

And why is the complex care being offered voluntary, not mandated? What if a chronic offender with multiple convictions refuses help? What then? Catch and release. The mayhem continues.

We’re about 20 years late and at least a billion dollars short in dealing with this crisis.

Vancouver in particular is paying the price. It’s got to stop.

Lynda Steele’s career has taken her from Global TV and the Edmonton Journal in Alberta, to becoming one of BC’s best known and most trusted broadcasters, most recently as the afternoon drive host on CKNW Radio until 2021.