#parent | #kids | Residents have safety concerns with West Columbia Street motel row

Amidst gunfire on West Columbia Street last Friday morning (Oct. 16), students of nearby Beattie elementary got ready for school.

A press release was sent to media at 7:45 a.m., asking the public to avoid the area. However, parents proceeded to drop their kids off at school. One parent said it wasn’t until just before 9 a.m., when she was notified classrooms were on “hold and secure.” The question she has is why weren’t parents told before they drove their kids to school near a police situation involving a shooter?

“We all had to drive through it in order to get to the school,” Beattie parent Tara Bondar told KTW, noting communication to parents did not occur fast enough. “The school district did not sent out a message saying, ‘Hey, this is happening. If you bring your kids to school, they will be in a hold and secure.’ There was no communication about how to proceed.”

Frustration is mounting amongst Beattie parents because it’s not the first time a police incident has occurred near the school and it’s not the first time gaps in communication have occurred. In the spring, police responded to an armed robbery at the Esso gas station across from Beattie at the end of the school day. The bell rang and kids heading home walked into an active police situation.

“It’s my understanding that the police maybe forgot to communicate that there was a police incident happening in close proximity to the school,” Bondar said, noting Mounties were chasing the suspect in the neighbourhood. “That was very alarming because when I went to the school to pick my children up, there was police everywhere.”

School District 73 superintendent Terry Sullivan said as soon as the school district was given directive by Kamloops RCMP last Friday, it acted. Sullivan said the school district has since learned there was never any danger to schools — also involving Sahali secondary and the private St. Ann’s Academy — and the hold and secure was precautionary. Sullivan could not say what time the school district received directive from police.

“When I looked, the actual call went out to parents at 8:56 a.m.” he said. “As soon as we were informed by the RCMP — we have a liaison officer with the RCMP — and as soon as we were informed by that liaison officer, we were directed to tell our schools in that area to hold and secure. We did. As soon as we heard the directive from them, we acted on it.”

Kamloops RCMP Sgt. Darren Michels said police were dealing with the incident at 7:30 a.m. The school district does not receive media releases. Michels said the watch commander or school liaison, if on shift, would let the schools know. Asked when that happened on Friday, Michels said he did not know, but added police try to notify schools as soon as possible. He described Friday’s incident as an “unfolding” situation.

“I can’t comment on necessarily what time that occurred,” he said.

Bondar said a committee was struck after the springtime gas station robbery to discuss issues at the school, also involving drug paraphernalia and feces found on school property, homeless individuals on school property and more. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, put the issue on the backburner until about three weeks ago, when someone entered the school and stole a purse, phone and keys out of a classroom during school hours, with kids in the building.

Beattie parents recently sent a letter to the city and School District 73, requesting a meeting to address safety issues. In the letter, they ask to meet with the city, MLAs, MP, RCMP and Beattie parent advisory committee to create solutions to improve safety for Lower Sahali and the West End.

Sullivan said he is “concerned” about increased criminality in the area, which he said is an escalating problem. He said during his long tenure with the school district, incidents occurred in the area around Beattie elementary, but “not like we’re seeing now.” He said the use of hotels/motels in the area for housing has changed over time, with more desperate individuals in the area. Sullivan, who has agreed to meet with those with concerns, said he understands concern from parents, noting the school district recently installed additional security at the school.

Beattie parents and South Sahali residents point to nearby motels/hotels in the area and question why people are permitted to live in them long-term.

Bondar noted that through the Find My Phone app, police reclaimed belongings from the recent school theft from a resident at the Star Lodge, which is located next to the school. Two weeks ago, she said, her kids came home and said they watched police raid the motel during school hours. She wonders, again, if the school was notified.

The letter to the city and school district from Beattie parent Kim Fisher states hotels close to the property have unsavoury individuals climbing in and out of windows.

“To be completely frank, it seems as though the windows are being used as access to a crack shack/shoot-up shack,” the letter states. “These windows and the individuals using them are approximately 60 feet from the gate of the school grounds,” the letter states, noting parents are afraid and concerned for the safety of their children.

“If you’re zoned as a hotel and you’re breaking your licensing, why are you able to continue your operations?” Bondar asked.

Hotels/motels in the West Columbia Street area are being used for long-term accommodations. Some are clearly established, with potted plants on balconies. Others look rough.

Some are funded by BC Housing. Ask Wellness Society executive director Bob Hughes said the agency operates about 50 of 400 motel units in the West Columbia Street area. However, he wishes to dispel rumour — the agency does not operate or have history with the Hospitality Inn, where last week’s shooting took place.

A couple of years ago, ASK Wellness had a couple units at the Star Lodge, but it is no longer involved with that motel, he said. For two years, the agency has been leasing space at the Columbia Motor Inn and it also leased space in the Panorama Inn and Suites over the winter and due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hughes said the two properties run by ASK are not causing issues in the area and pointed to two other issues.

One is the viewpoint, which is left open through the night and is not patrolled. The second is motels in the area that once relied on long-term stays from international students at Thompson Rivers University struggling to fill rooms.

“Because of COVID, that market has dried up,” Hughes said. They need revenues. They’re being impacted. Units are being rented. But we have for the past three months been highlighting to the RCMP and City of Kamloops our concerns with the activities around the south Sahali motel area, around Columbia.”

City of Kamloops community and protective services director Byron McCorkell said the city works with BC Housing and agencies on supporting housing, including relaxation of licensing for stays longer than 30 days, which is typically permitted for motels/hotels. Meanwhile, bylaws officers have visited other motels numerous times when it is suspected people are staying longer than 30 days. Enforcement is a challenge, McCorkell said.

“There’s some weaknesses in the hotel act in that there is no requirements for proof of who that person is, other than signature, so they may move to a different room, they may change their name, there are a number of different things that may happen that make it very difficult to pursue long-term stays,” McCorkell said, noting the property owner needs to be open to change and it takes a long time to resolve property issues.

McCorkell said the West Columbia Street area is experiencing social issues, as are other areas of Kamloops. He said drug addiction and mental-health issues are on the street, while the judicial system is leaving people who should not be on the street in the community.

“It all comes together somewhere and that’s, generally speaking, the street,” McCorkell said. “Then the city has limited abilities to address those issues. We have people who are living homeless, yet we have shelter beds available, and we have individuals who are fighting serious addiction in front of us who we can’t impact because we have no detox and no sobering centre. As a community, we are pressing upon the people who are responsible for these things that we need to do something, but that doesn’t make for an immediate response to an individual who has expressed a concern.”

Bondar said she wants to raise kids who are empathetic toward mental-health and substance-use issues. However, she said, children need to be safe.

“We all need to be involved in a solution that stops the level of criminality seeping into the school and the surrounding neighbourhood,” Bondar said.

Meanwhile, the city has been discussing rezoning of the hotels/motels on West Columbia Street from highway commercial to general commercial to allow multi-use mixed buildings, which could legitimate the current illegal use of the hotels/motels for long-term rentals.

Coun. Arjun Singh said rezoning has not yet been decided. Asked if those properties should be rezoned, he replied: “I think ultimately, it’s a dilemma. We have housing issues in the community and we have people who are living in substandard housing in a lot of ways, but that’s better than people being on the street. I pass by that neighbourhood, as well, I pass by those motels all the time. I think the outside of them is not aesthetically very pleasing all of the time, but I don’t think we’ve had a lot of big issues up to this point with crime or other issues that go beyond those. We have to think quite carefully about how to make sure the people who are currently housed there still have a place to go.”

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