Business owners and community leaders say social disorder and crime continue to plague downtown Edmonton, even as more people return to the office to work in person.
Council's community and public services committee started reviewing the city's new proposed safety and well-being strategy on Monday and more than 20 speakers signed up to share their concerns.
Stacy Zaidi, a co-owner of 10 Remedy Cafe locations in Edmonton, said she worries about her staff and customers, who've dealt with abusive incidents over the past year.
"My staff have been spit on. They've been punched in the face. There's been sexual and ethnic discrimination," Zaidi told councillors.
Zaidi said staff sometimes have to navigate garbage, human waste and needles to get into the building.
"I really feel that many of the businesses — we're on our own," she said. "We're losing our empathy, we're losing our patience, and we need help — now.
Pamela Brown, who has worked in safety and security at Edmonton City Centre mall for decades, said she supports the community safety and well-being strategy as a tool to address ongoing social disorder, which is more apparent than ever.
"Before COVID, the challenges were somewhat masked by the working populace," Brown said. "With the challenges of crime and disorder so very evident, that working populace is afraid to return."
Brown suggested residents, businesses and workers need to feel safer, and clients who use the mall as a hub need more places to go, such as daytime shelter spaces.
"In my 40 years, never have I seen downtown Edmonton in such dire straits," Brown said. "Please act now."
Ten business cases
The city's strategy outlines ten initiatives that require funding right away, including $1.5 million in microgrants for businesses and community groups.
Andre Corbould, city manager, said a pool of $8.4 million available from the Edmonton police budget can be used toward the initiatives, including $1.5 million toward an integrated call dispatch centre and $1 million for an Indigenous-led shelter.
Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, said the microgrants are needed but they only go so far.
The DBA is developing a new safety ambassadors program, she said, which she said would require $150,000 to $200,000 in the first year.
Many businesses are directly impacted by serious safety challenges, she told councillors.
"They deserve to feel safe and free to exist peacefully and to make a living in our downtown and in our core neighbourhoods."
There also needs to be more visible police patrols, she emphasized.
"It is absolutely essential to have law enforcement be part of the solution," McBryan said. "We can't keep our outreach workers safe if we're sending them out there on their own."
In 2020, council agreed to create an independent task force to come up with recommendations on improving safety.
Their report, "Safer for All," was released in March 2021 and is included in the collection of reports that make up the full strategy.
Rob Houle, a member on the task force, spoke at the meeting Monday and told councillors he sees little progress.
"Here we are a year out, and we have very little productivity or completion of the recommendations that me and my fellow colleagues made."
Those included building a more diverse, inclusive, anti-racist organizations through training and recruitment; investing in public safety amenities like public washrooms and shelters; and creating a new regulatory college for police and peace officers.
Councillors will continue discussing the strategy and funding requirements at a meeting Tuesday.