Vancouver’s five mayoral candidates squared off in Chinatown Saturday in a sometimes fiery debate over drug use, public safety and homelessness in the community that saw ongoing challenges worsen during the pandemic.
The town hall was moderated by veteran journalist Frances Bula of the Globe and Mail, and sponsored by 15 community organizations from the Chinatown, False Creek, Strathcona, and Gastown neighbourhoods.
Vancouver mayor responds to challenge from wife of Chinatown security guard attacked by stranger
Chinatown is still struggling with prolific graffiti, stranger attacks and street disorder — and the first question for candidates was how would they propose to make the streets safe again in their first months in office.
Incumbent mayor and Forward Together Vancouver mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart was the first to respond, although he didn’t start talking about solutions until the end of his two minutes of the allotted time.
“Criminals that are assaulting people, that are breaking into businesses … have to be dealt with,” Stewart told the Choi Hall audience of more than 150 people before he was cut off.
“So sorry, you are out of time,” said Bula.
“We’re in a crisis, we have to act now,” countered ABC Vancouver mayoral candidate Ken Sim.
“We are going to ask on day one for the Vancouver Police Department to hire 100 additional officers and 100 additional mental health nurses.”
Plagued by public safety concerns, Chinatown business owners plead for government help
Sim also pledged to put a city office in Chinatown to engage with residents and businesses on the ground.
TEAM for a Livable Vancouver mayoral candidate Colleen Hardwick said along with more police walking the streets and engaging with Chinatown residents, she would hire a Downtown Eastside commissioner to take charge of all spending — including in Chinatown.
“How is it we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars and things have gotten even worse,” said Hardwick.
NPA Vancouver mayoral candidate Fred Harding, who was a police officer for more than 30 years, said the issues in Chinatown are “entirely solvable.”
“We need somebody that knows how to target individual criminals and how to target individual criminal groups and take them off the street,” Harding told the crowd.
Progress Vancouver mayoral candidate Mark Marissen said he would be open to beat cops walking the streets of Chinatown while promising two more immediate tasks.
Refugee attacked in random Vancouver Chinatown stabbing
“One is to get better lighting in Chinatown, another is to clean the streets,” said Marissen.
Bula then told Stewart she would give him an extra 30 seconds to say what he’s actually going to do “cause we never got to that.”
“For the career criminals, we need to fully fund the VPD and make sure that they have all the resources and that’s what we’ve done over the last four years, fully funded the VPD,” continued Stewart.
During his current term as mayor, Stewart voted not to increase Vancouver’s 2021 police budget.
‘No consultation’: Vancouver police chief slams $8.5M budget cut amid COVID-19 crisis
The police board appealed the Dec. 2020 council decision and in March, the provincial government ordered the city to reinstate $5.7 million in funding to the Vancouver Police Department.
Stewart also said the Health & Addictions Response Team (HART) he announced on Sept. 20 and promised to implement if re-elected would allow residents and businesses to call 311 for a specialized team of 25 counsellors who would compassionately assist the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.
“Most of that service would be focused in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside,” Stewart told Global News in an interview after the debate.
Vancouver Police Board appeal has added $5.7 million to their budget
Candidates were also asked how they would immediately reduce street and park encampments in a way that improves the lives of the homeless.
“We’re going to shift the strategy towards quality units so people actually can live and will live in these units,” promised Sim.
“We’d look to the provincial and federal government for more supports when it comes to wraparound services.”
Colleen Hardwick said we’re not going to “flick a switch” to solve homelessness and noted there’s lots of land at the PNE where people could be triaged before being paired with appropriate housing.
“With the tone that comes from the top, which is ‘come on down, Vancouver is a destination for homelessness,’ then we’re never going to solve this problem.”
B.C. government rules $5.7M must be returned to Vancouver police budget
If elected on Oct. 15, Harding said the East Hastings tent encampment will be gone by Christmas in a process that will be tied to treatment.
“If it was your child on the street and all we had to offer them was harm reduction and slum housing, do you think that’s good enough?” Harding asked the crowd.
Marissen said he would identify city-owned land for “intentional encampments” to temporarily house the most vulnerable until they found housing.
Stewart said more housing is the answer and promised compassion over immediate action.
“These are folks that need deep care and they’re victims,” said Stewart.
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.