Crime pressures push downtown employee safety into spotlight
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Violence, harassment, abuse and fear — it’s all in a day’s work for employees in downtown Winnipeg, and it keeps Graham Bargen awake at night.
“It’s not something that’s symbolic, I literally get up at night because our (business) alarm goes off fairly regularly,” said Bargen, owner of Thom Bargen Coffee Roasters.
Bargen has operated the shop on the corner of Graham Avenue and Kennedy Street since 2015. The state of safety in downtown Winnipeg had deteriorated to the point where staff are now confronted with concerning incidents every day, he said Tuesday.
In some cases, people come into the business mildly intoxicated; in others, people are disruptive, harassing or violent.
Bargen stressed he does not blame the individuals, saying they are often desperate and suffering from mental health issues or addictions. Still, the situation has become untenable, with employees in downtown finding themselves on the front lines of Winnipeg’s social challenges, he added.
“It’s tough to be in the service industry downtown and (ask staff) to have a whole tool kit of other skills that one could maybe argue is not their job,” Bargen said.
“I have empathy for people who are in tough times right now, and so much of our work involves walking this very nuanced line of giving out free coffee and doing our best for people that need it, while also not becoming a not-for-profit shelter space… That gets harder and harder to do as incidents continue to rise.”
Among them, on Dec. 11, Tyree Cayer, 28, was stabbed to death inside the Millennium Library. Winnipeg police have charged a 14-year-old boy with second-degree murder, while a 14-, 15- and 16-year-old each face a charge of manslaughter.
The downtown library, which is also a community resource for people seeking shelter and bathroom facilities, remains closed.
On Dec. 14, Winnipeg police arrested and charged Beau Joseph Normand, 34, with sexual assault and confinement for a series of incidents involving female fast-food employees who were working alone in the downtown area.
Bargen, who operates two other Thom Bargen locations throughout the city, said he no longer allows his employees to work alone, despite the added cost.
“Even though it would be much more financially viable… our employee safety is more important to us, so we don’t do that,” he said. “(Crime) is everywhere, but downtown is seeing it the worst, I think.”
Data from the Winnipeg Police Service appears to back that up.
Between September 2021 and August 2022 — the latest data currently available — the downtown area reported 18,572 crimes, with 3,987 classified as violent.
“(Crime) is everywhere, but downtown is seeing it the worst, I think.”–Graham Bargen
The area consistently logs among the highest rates of violent crime in Winnipeg.
Staff with the Downtown Community Safety Partnership have seen calls for service increase by more than 400 per cent in 2022.
The organization was founded in April 2020, with the goal of addressing the increasing number of people living downtown and struggling with mental health and addictions challenges. It responds to non-emergency calls and conducts community patrols.
The group fielded 505 calls in 2021; by Oct. 31, it had received 2,219.
The numbers appear shocking, but may be exaggerated because the organization is now more established in the community, said Matthew Sanscartier, director of operations and intelligence.
Despite the stats, Sanscartier believes living and working downtown is no more dangerous than anywhere else in Winnipeg. The perception is driven, in part, by high-profile crimes in recent weeks, he added.
“These problems were always there, we’re just kind of casting a new light on them,” Sanscartier said.
“It’s homelessness, addictions, not having access to services — that’s really where the safety issues are… There’s definitely a problem if people don’t feel safe downtown, but I think that feeling over time has become sort of detached from the actual objective odds of encountering an issue where somebody’s safety is at risk.”
At a media event in November, Winnipeg Jets co-owner and chairman of the safety partnership Mark Chipman called the level of homelessness and addictions in Winnipeg’s downtown a “humanitarian crisis.”
At the same event, the province announced it was injecting $3.6 million in support of the safety partnership.
Reducing the crime rate in Winnipeg’s core will require increased funding and development of social services, and a more proactive effort to restore the area, Sanscartier said, adding if more people chose to live and work downtown, it will ultimately become safer.
“Crime happens because there’s a need that isn’t being met… there’s no one answer. It needs to be a multifaceted, ongoing and relentless approach,” he said.
“Crime happens because there’s a need that isn’t being met… there’s no one answer. It needs to be a multifaceted, ongoing and relentless approach.”–Matthew Sanscartier
For now, the safety partnership will continue to patrol and address social challenges on the street level. If local employees are working alone or concerned, they can arrange for members of the partnership to stop by for periodic check-ins, Sanscartier said.
According to the Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Act code of practice, business owners have a responsibility to ensure staff working in high-risk environments are adequately protected. In the document, service industry jobs are not identified as high-risk.
The Downtown Business Improvement Zone declined requests for comment.
The City of Winnipeg said it is up to the province to develop and enforce labour laws that protect employees.
The province responded to request for comment, but was unable to provide a statement before deadline. It will provide a response Wednesday, a spokesperson said.
Updated on Tuesday, December 20, 2022 7:23 PM CST: Fixes typo