Column: Tackling Local Problems Tricky

My StarPhoenix column this week.

When I bought my house I had certain expectations.

I expected the police to keep marauding mobs off my street, the fire department to put out fires, my neighbours to maintain their homes and city council not to make decisions that would hurt the value of my investment. I didn’t just want the status quo; I wanted the status quo and a steady rate of return for my investment.

Having such expectations is why we get so upset when things go wrong. Depending on one’s city, it can be as simple as a day care moving onto the street or, if one lives in Detroit, a complete removal of essential civic services such as policing, fire protection and garbage pickup from the neighbourhood.

A change to the "social contract" that makes up a city can be a big deal. I experienced that last week when I fired off a couple of emails to some city councillors to express support for Mayor Don Atchison and Police Chief Clive Weighill’s plan to license escort agencies.

While I see prostitution as an act of violence against women, I know the laws of Canada see it in a much different light and prostitution is legal in Canada. The city’s plan to make it safer for the women is a step in the right direction.

While I appreciated the step forward, I also suggested the escort agencies be moved out of residential neighbourhoods, mine in particular.

Living in a neighbourhood that has some escorts and street prostitutes working there, I have had moments of NIMBYism that have been quite literal, with the women and johns performing the trick right beside my house.

For years, I have seen the same cars circle and circle. Working night shifts in a neighbourhood store used to feature coffee breaks during which I watched johns try to get up the courage (or beat down the shame) as they drove around before making their move.

As street prostitution has become a bigger part of life, each morning I check our boulevard and back alley for used needles and condoms.

In a frequent walk down to the needle disposal box, I have contemplated building my own version of the historic Watts Tower. Except, my tower would not be built out of garbage, but of used needles, burnt spoons and condoms.

I thought it was a good idea, but sadly massive towers of used drug paraphernalia are not allowed under the current zoning bylaws. It isn’t the escort agencies that are the problem, but their proximity contributes to an interconnected problem of aggressive johns, drugs and increased street prostitution.

It raises the question of how does one tackle integrated local problems without making local business and homeowners pay a price in property values and even an increase in the concentration of the problem. As in most cities, Saskatoon’s approach has not been co-ordinated, but there are examples that can be built upon.

The Saskatoon Community Service Village on 25th Street is an example of a place that delivers a high volume and quality of services without having an impact on the neighbouring communities. It’s located on the west side of Kinsmen Park, has minimal impact on surrounding businesses and residents and, being an integrated facility, has a much smaller footprint than if all of the partner agencies had their own buildings.

Another way to go is to target certain streets and areas for economic growth, while keeping social agencies to the side streets, much as the Riversdale Business Improvement District has proposed for 20th Street. Along with that could be zoning regulations that provide adequate frontage and spaces to loiter – to ensure normal street commerce and traffic isn’t interrupted.

The other side of the equation is the role neighbourhoods themselves play in solving social issues. We are not just taxpayers but also citizens, which denotes responsibility on our part.

We have a right to expect things from the city, but the city also has a right to expect things of us. In neighbourhoods where there are emerging social issues, homeowners and business operators need to accept that things need to change even if it is uncomfortable to confront the problem.

In a week where Saskatoon was considering licensing escort agencies and later the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the right for Vancouver’s safe injection site to stay open, those problems seem a lot more complex than they did a couple of weeks ago.

While I despise the impact the sex trade has on people who are victimized and on the neighbourhoods it affects, at least the city and the police are moving forward.

It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s a courageous one and a lot better than doing nothing.

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