London’s downtown in ‘crisis’ amid drugs, destitution and leadership vacuum

Christine Thomas’s commute to work often involves gingerly stepping over used needles or condoms and sometimes, even the sleeping people who just used them. 

“I have staff that go back and forth here and we have to experience this,” said Thomas, the manager of Petrov Bridal.

She and her staff are frustrated because it’s up to them to not only clear out the people sleeping in the back doorway of the Dundas Street store’s staff entrance, but also whatever else they leave behind. 

London shopkeeper steps over needles and sleeping people on her way to work 1:10

Thomas’s almost daily experience is part of a growing chorus of people who live and work downtown that say the city’s central business district is facing a worsening crisis of homelessness and drug addiction set against a seemingly endless onslaught of construction. 

The signs are everywhere, with destitute people sleeping in doorways, human feces smeared on sidewalks and a panoply of empty store fronts and ‘for lease signs’ that rim a dusty labyrinth of dug up streets and orange construction fencing.

Downtown businesses face leadership vacuum

Stains are all that’s left of where staff at a Dundas Street store say people relieved themselves in the back alley of a bridal shop. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“There are so many different things happening all at once,” said Arielle Kayabaga, the city councillor whose ward 13 constituency includes downtown London.

Adding to what already appears to be a staggering set of problems is a leadership vacuum left in the wake of the abrupt and unceremonious departure of Janette MacDonald, whose 17-year tenure as the top advocate for downtown business ended Wednesday under a shroud of secrecy. 

“The decision of the manager of the Business Improvement Association to move on can’t be attributed to homelessness and drug use in the downtown,” Kayabaga said.

MacDonald’s sudden departure as CEO of Downtown London comes on the heels of a number of big name businesses that have pulled up stakes and fled the neighbourhood. 

Big name businesses flee downtown

Kitty corner from Market Tower is another vacant storefront, that once was occupied by Rexall. Both properties are owned by Farhi Holdings Corporation. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

High-profile retail tenants that have left the area near the intersection of Dundas and Richmond, include:

  • Royal Bank: RBC is opening of a new branch at Talbot Centre at 142 Fullarton St. in a move that announced last fall. 
  • McDonald’s: The fast-food chain’s Dundas Street location closed at the end of July. 
  • Rexall pharmacy: Closed its doors in May of 2018 and remains vacant. 

Kayabaga said no single factor by itself is to blame and that with so much change happening in the core, it’s a tough time for the people who live and work in the neighbourhood. 

“We’re facing a lot of big city problems that we’re not completely ready to face,” Kayabaga said. 

Chief among those big city problems is the influx of addicts who arrive in London from southwestern Ontario’s smaller communities, looking for the kind of social services and addiction treatment that doesn’t exist in the villages, hamlets and towns that dot the rural landscape. 

The result, many say, is a concentration of an entire region’s social ills inside London’s downtown core, which has tarnished the way many see the neighbourhood, according to Brahm Wiseman, the owner of Heroes on Dundas Street. 

Brahm Wiseman: ‘there are major poverty, mental health and addiction issues downtown’ 0:45

“There is major poverty, mental health and addiction issues downtown and I think the construction highlights it a lot more,” he said. 

Wiseman said he’s also noticed what he describes as a “major shift in the culture” of downtown’s more colourful denizens. 

“More people sleeping in doorways, in the street, more messes, that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s rampant.”  

Calling on the province

Ward 13 councillor Arielle Kayabaga represents downtown London. (Submitted)

So rampant in fact, that when Kayabaga attended a recent conference for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), she managed to find common ground with politicians from a number of other Ontario cities who are experiencing similar problems.

“We were talking to the province and letting them know what kind of crisis London is in right now,” she said. “But, I can tell you that every single city that spoke with the province is saying the exact same thing.”

Getting more money from the province to help fix the problem, might be like squeezing blood from a stone, especially when the Progressive Conservative government under Doug Ford is determined to rewrite the province’s books with a less billowy deficit. 

In fact, Kayabaga said the province has already made a number of cuts to municipal funding. 

Still, provincial officials have shown an interest in helping, according to the city councillor, who says she was promised provincial officials would visit London this fall to help find a solution. 

Construction has kept Dundas Street closed between Wellington Road and Richmond Street for months. (Kerry McKee/CBC London)

In the meantime, she said the city is working with all of its community partners, including the London Police Service and the Middlesex London Health Unit, to address problems as they arise.

The city is also looking to other communities for potential solutions. 

“We do have a responsibility to make the downtown viable,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can.”