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Western Canada's largest shop for all things naughty -- Discreet Boutique -- has closed its doors after more than three decades, and the owner is blaming its demise on harassment from downtown panhandlers.

Rupert Singh said Tuesday his business has declined by 30 per cent over the last three years due to a growing number of panhandlers accosting his customers -- 86 per cent of whom are women -- outside his nearly 7,000-square-foot store at Donald Street and Ellice Avenue.

A passerby looks into a shuttered Discreet Boutique Tuesday.


MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A passerby looks into a shuttered Discreet Boutique Tuesday.

"These panhandlers are getting so aggressive. They follow you and swear at you and say all kinds of things," Singh said. "People were scared to come to the store."

He said he and his employees also took abuse, particularly in the last five or six years as the number of vagrants seemed to grow.

"I was threatened. I was told to go back to my country. I just got fed up. Everybody in the company got fed up. They didn't want to be harassed every day."

Singh was commenting after Air Canada came under fire in recent days from Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak for saying it was moving its flight crews from the downtown Radisson hotel to an airport-area hotel because of safety concerns.

An airline official said in a memo "approximately 1,000 displaced people from rural Manitoba" are living in downtown hotels and that "instances of public intoxication have resulted in several downtown locations being susceptible to crimes of violence and opportunity."

The airline denied the memo was referring to First Nations flood evacuees, but said it was sorry if it offended anyone.

Singh said he sympathizes with the airline.

"Everybody is upset with Air Canada, but somebody had to speak up," he said. "I agree with them. There is a problem."

Singh isn't the only area business owner who says vagrants are a growing problem.

Robel Arefaine, owner of the Kokeb Restaurant, said he's been sworn at by panhandlers and drunks and told to "go back to my country" when he's asked them to move away from his Ellice business.

He said they've also scared away customers.

A spokeswoman for the Giant Tiger store at Donald and Ellice admitted it, too, has problems with panhandlers and drunks, but not to the extent it would ever leave the downtown.

"We're very happy at that location," said Christine Reimer, vice-president and general manager of the Giant Tiger West division for Winnipeg's North West Company.

Reimer said whenever staff have a problem with vagrants, they call the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone and it sends over a police cadet or outreach worker to take them away.

Singh and Arefaine both called for beefed-up police foot patrols.

"When I see those guys (police officers) I am more confident," Arefaine said. "And the same with my customers."

Downtown BIZ executive director Stefano Grande said he's been calling for years for an expanded police presence in the downtown.


Two-pronged approach

Stefano Grande of the Downtown BIZ is advocating a two-pronged approach to the problem of vagrants downtown:

More police foot patrols, particularly during the evening and overnight. Grande said the BIZ's own street patrol, which includes 25 watch ambassadors and 10 outreach workers, and the recent addition of Winnipeg Police Service cadets to downtown streets, has helped. But it's not enough.

More housing units for the homeless. He said Calgary has largely solved its downtown panhandling/drunks problem by building 3,600 new housing units for the homeless. He said the recent conversion of the Bell Hotel on Main Street into permanent, affordable, residential units for the homeless was a step in the right direction.