Chinatown residents seek solution to increasing public drug use

Ambulance sirens blare nearby, as Zeny Marte points out another discarded needle in a Chinatown back alley littered with feces and garbage. 

These sights and sounds are common in the area just north of downtown, where Edmonton’s vulnerable and homeless population congregate. 

“You can’t really walk without being scared or without tripping over a needle,” Marte told CBC in an interview. 

The three supervised consumption sites located in the neighbourhood haven’t improved the situation, said Marte, who has lived in Chinatown for 10 years. 

“Things are getting worse, I don’t see them getting any better.”

Zeny Marte says used needles are often found in vacant lots, such as this one located north of the Royal Alberta Museum. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Georgina Fiddler, who has lived in Chinatown since 2010, said public drug use is on the rise in the area.

She increasingly sees people who are in distress or appear to be overdosing while out walking her dog in the neighbourhood.

“I find it really depressing,” Fiddler said. “You see the filth and the misery of the people, it brings on a feeling of frustration. When is this going to end?”

Fiddler doesn’t oppose supervised consumption sites but disagrees with their current location.  

“Injection sites are a good thing because they do save lives, but when you concentrate them into an already distressed area, it’s a disaster.”

Agencies who support homeless and addicted people are needed, Fiddler said, but clustering them together has created a chaotic environment.

“It’s the concentration of everything that has ghettoized Chinatown.”

Georgina Fiddler says she has encountered many people in medical distress while walking her dog in Chinatown. (Nathan Gross/ CBC)

‘They need help’

While data from the City of Edmonton shows a decrease in needles found on public land, Marte said the numbers don’t match up with her lived experience. 

Many residents clean needles up themselves, she said, and the data doesn’t take into account needles found on private properties. 

“First thing in the morning, you see all the needles everywhere,” Marte said.

She worries that the sight will drive customers away from Chinatown, and negatively impact local businesses.

“How are business people supposed to run their business if it’s like that?”

Marte is advocating for more treatment options for addicted people, and more housing options for those in need.

“These people are human,” she said. “They are not any different than us. They need help.”

Bloody alcohol pads litter the ground in the vacant lot located north of the Royal Alberta Museum, on the edge of Chinatown. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

‘We need to step up’ 

The concerns of residents are valid, said City of Edmonton Councillor Scott McKeen, whose ward includes Chinatown. 

But the supervised consumption sites are not responsible for the disorder in the area, he said. 

“The real problems are caused by a lack of housing in the city,” McKeen said. “Permanent supportive housing is required for a lot of that population.”

He recognizes that the concentration of homelessness in Chinatown is problematic, and has taken a toll on the people who live and work in the area. 

“We need to step up in a serious way, for the for the sake of those vulnerable people, for the sake of the neighbourhoods that have hosted homelessness and poverty for far too long, but also for these small business areas.”

The City of Edmonton is hoping to build 600 supportive housing units, McKeen said, but needs provincial and federal support to make it happen. 

“It’s time for all orders of government to step up and make major differences to relieve some of the pressures on our core communities,” he said. 

Marte and Fiddler want the same thing, but wonder what will happen to their neighbourhood in the meantime.

“Chinatown can’t be the dumping ground for everything that nobody else wants,” said Fiddler. “That’s what it is right now.”