“London’s Underground – Prologue”

It’s a part of our city that almost all Londoners have seen, few would acknowledge, and fewer still know how to resolve.  It’s a part of London that is all too familiar to the residents, retailers and restauranteurs that live and work largely in the downtown core but increasingly seen across the city.  It a part of our city that surely frustrates our core city councillors, our neighbourhood associations, our police and health unit, and the numerous social services and charitable organizations who work daily to fix the seemingly unfixable.

I am referring to a group of our most vulnerable citizens.  They are our poor, our homeless, and our destitute.  They often suffer from mental health issues, drug and alcohol addition, loneliness, and despair.  They are unemployed and most often unemployable.  Their day is one of survival; an endless cycle of pain, indignity and depression that can often only be numbed by an injection or bottle of booze.  They are focused only on doing whatever it takes to get through the day, with little regard for themselves or their surroundings.  They number in the hundreds, but they are costing us thousands and their presence is slowly engulfing the heart of our city.  I am talking about what I shall respectfully refer to as: London’s Underground.

Like many Londoners, I had always been passively aware of this rather unseemly side of our city.  It was something you noticed while heading out for dinner or attending a Knight’s hockey game.  It was a minor nuisance and of little concern to me or any part of my daily routine.

I became much more aware of the situation when I joined the Police Services Board.  Rarely did I attend a Board meeting where the Chief did not express some concern over the heightened need for more downtown foot patrol to help manage the Underground’s growing presence.

In recent weeks, this issue has re-emerged for me in a big way.  Over the past couple of months, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of downtown retailers and residents to discuss a range of issues confronting the city’s core.  And beyond their widespread frustration with the BRT process, the single biggest issue named by all of them was the growing reach of London’s Underground.  Every one of the merchants and residents I spoke with shared a story or two about their interactions with our Underground, and expressed their exasperations with it. While most expressed sympathy for the people and the problem, all were equally concerned for the personal safety and contentment of their patrons, employees, family and friends.

In an effort to better understand the true magnitude of the problem, I decided to immerse myself in it and reach out to a recently-retired member of our police service to introduce me to the problem, up close and personal.  At his recommendation, we began my orientation with a 3-hour walking tour of our downtown, not just the parts we drive by, but the nooks and crannies where our Underground is forced to live.  It is worth noting that what I learned about our Underground in the downtown, could easily apply to other parts of the city.

What I was exposed to may surprise you and even disturb you.  It certainly disturbed me and it is much bigger than I imagined.  It also caused me to think about how to even convey the problem through this blog, let alone, articulate some sort of solution.

In an effort to share with you what I have observed and what I plan to investigate in the coming weeks, I have decided to break down the problem into manageable chapters.

In Part 1, I plan to introduce you to the people I met along my tour, to give some initial perspective on the problem.  In subsequent posts, I plan to write about the size of the problem, the system we are currently relying upon to contain the problem, and some steps we may consider to resolve the problem.

In subsequent Parts, I shall turn to the numbers, including the size of our Underground and where it comes from. I’ll next outline our response system, including a list of the resources, their responsibilities and most notably their cost.  Finally, I shall suggest some possible solutions to help London improve its responsiveness and remedy a very delicate problem.

I need to say this much up front.  Resolving this issue is not going to be easy.   But if we are going to proceed with big-ticket investments (such as BRT and Flex Street) in our downtown and other retail districts in and around the city, then we are going to need to address this issue.  Otherwise, our “calling card” to the world may not be worth calling.