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People working to help B.C.’s homeless population concerned about growing vigilantism

B.C. advocates working with the homeless population say they’re concerned about growing vigilantism after a man was shot while trying to reclaim stolen property from an encampment on Vancouver Island.

Nanaimo RCMP were called to the incident Sunday afternoon, after the owner of a local mechanic shop — one of six people who went into the encampment to recover stolen tools — was shot in the stomach. 

Mounties said they don’t condone the group’s actions.

“Risking your life or possible injury to yourself or others over stolen property is not worth it,” Const. Gary O’Brien said Monday. “People taking justice into their own hands, it never ends well.”

In response to the altercation, Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said the city is facing a public safety crisis that goes beyond the scope of what cities can control.

“When government is no longer able to protect people and their property, we are in a dangerous place,” he said, calling for help from the federal and provincial governments.

Risks to vulnerable people

Fiona York, an advocate volunteering at the tent city in Vancouver’s CRAB Park, says she has come across many cases where unhoused people endured violence from members of the public but never heard of a case where a person seeking vigilante justice got injured.

York argues that vigilantism is “always going to be problematic.”

“It never would be a recourse for people to take matters into their own hands like this, except in terms of building communication or building a relationship or engaging on a different level,” she said.

A woman with glasses stands in a park with trees and tents behind.
Vancouver homelessness advocate Fiona York says vigilantism is ‘always going to be problematic.’ (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vigilantism across the province

Over the last year, RCMP across the province have issued warnings about vigilantism, where people decide not to call police to help recover stolen items, instead confronting the alleged thieves themselves and trying to reclaim the stolen property.

Last July, in Penticton in B.C.’s South Okanagan, Mounties became aware of neighbours discussing ways to recover stolen items without police assistance on the private Facebook group Clean Streets Penticton and expressed their concern. 

“The provocation of violence may result in serious injuries or other crimes, which further limit our detachment’s limited resources,” the police detachment said in a written statement.

In Dawson Creek in northeastern B.C., a similar group named “Citizens Take Action” was established last November and, according to local media, wrote city council saying it had “lost confidence in our local RCMP detachment’s ability to address the acute rise in crime.” 

In January, the group even started patrolling the streets and tailing suspects.

Risky to confront people in ‘survival mode’

Desiree Surowski, the co-founder of the Penticton and Area Overdose Prevention Society, says it’s always risky for a large group of people to approach a vulnerable population living in “survival mode.”

“If they feel threatened, their brain will only be able to fight, flight or freeze,” Surowski said, adding that if unhoused people choose to fight back, this often leads to injuries as it did in Nanaimo.

A woman in a black T-shirt with sunglasses on her head stands smiling in front of a grassy area with trees.
Desiree Surowski, the co-founder of the Penticton and Area Overdose Prevention Society, says it’s always risky for a large group of people to approach a vulnerable population living in ‘survival mode.’ (Brady Strachan/CBC)

In response to British Columbians’ frustration with repeat offenders and a growing number of crimes, the province has called on the federal government to reform the bail system.

Surowski asks members of citizen groups not to address criminal matters on their own because the consequences can be severe as they were in Nanaimo.

“Someone will lose their life eventually,” she said. “It might not be the unhoused person, and it might not be the person taking the law into their own hands — it could be an innocent bystander.” 

“Nobody wants that on their conscience, and nobody wants to see that happen.”

A 2019 Statistics Canada report found that nearly one in 10 Canadians had been homeless at some point.

In the 12 months before the survey, those who were experiencing homelessness reported violence against them at three times the rate of those who had never been homeless.

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