Downtown Regina gets better one bowl at a time

by Gregory Beatty


city-tagDowntown Regina has two distinct characters. There’s the Monday to Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. business time when, on a good day, there might be 50,000 people working, shopping and hanging out. Then there’s the rest of the time, when many businesses are closed, street traffic plummets, and the downtown resembles the set of Omega Man or some other apocalyptic thriller.

Downtown Regina is also a place where some of the harshest realities about the city’s current growth spurt play out. Yes, some Reginans — maybe even a majority (or maybe not, but that’s another story) — have done quite well. But the rising cost of housing and other living expenses has also impacted severely on a segment of our population, leading to a rise in poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addiction and other social problems.

Many support services for the underprivileged are located in the downtown, which means people who use these services tend to stick nearby. Coupled with several high profile crimes that have occurred in the downtown in recent months, including the stabbing of four people at Cornwall Centre in April and a sexual assault near City Hall in May, that’s created a perception in the minds of some that downtown Regina is not safe.

That’s a perception that Downtown Regina Business Improvement District is anxious to correct, says executive director Judith Veresuk. In mid-June, it held a downtown dialogue with businesses and residents in the area to discuss safety issues.

It was an extension of an earlier initiative, says Veresuk.

“Two years ago we were having a lot of incidents with loiterers on Scarth St. Mall after 5 p.m. We got together with some of the businesses along that strip, particularly Beer Bros., the Cornwall Centre and Harvard, which owns and manages a number of properties in the area, and convened a safety and security task force,” she says. “We wanted to look at ways to address the issue that didn’t involve arresting people. Instead, we wanted to be more helpful to the folks who are there.

“We started researching programs that other communities use, along with things that we could do differently with deployment of our staff, security cameras, stuff like that. In the end we decided security cameras weren’t going to help. That’s when we met with Kim Sutherland of Street Culture Kidz and developed a pilot program called SCOPE. When it ran last year it seemed to alleviate a lot of the problems.”

SCOPE, says Sutherland, “stands for Street Culture Outreach Project Experience.”

“It began with a phone call from the city and Regina Downtown BID indicating that when we left our downtown location on 18 block Cornwall three years ago a spike occurred in negative interactions with street-involved youth. Whether it was coincidental or not, they concluded our presence had provided a higher level of safety for shoppers, tourists and downtown residents.”

The cornerstone of SCOPE, says Sutherland, is free soup that Street Culture distributes from a location on City Square Plaza each night.

“For street-involved youth, it might be the only sustenance they receive beyond junk food. The soups are very hearty, and we use small serving cups.

“We usually provide four to five gallons per day — up to eight gallons during a high traffic day. The young people are encouraged to come back as many times as they want to get full. Each time they make contact with our staff there’s an ease as a relationship develops.”

Street Culture partners with SIAST and the University of Regina to provide practicum placements for nurses who are on-site to assess the health of the youth, says Sutherland.

“When we gather data about their education level, their family background, where they slept last night, what’s the drug of choice on the street, it starts to reveal a theme about people we see as ‘problem kids’. Then we can match the need with the resource without having to guess what the problem is and possibly waste time and money with a resource that wasn’t required in the first place.”

Street Culture has been around for 18 years, says Sutherland. In that time, many of its clients have moved into staff positions at the non-profit and made other strides to break the cycle of poverty and despair that most have grown up in.

“A lot of people believe that what these kids need is a good swift kick and to get a job and that it should just magically happen,” says Sutherland. “But when we look at these people’s lives, I say when I speak to people about our program, ‘If these were baby birds they’d all be dead at the base of the tree or eaten by a cat through no fault of their own’. Make no mistake, this is not a youth problem. This is an adult problem that [manifests itself] in our young people.

“What we want people to do is make an investment in the community because as we turn street-involved youth into tax-paying citizens we’re paying back the system a hundredfold for what it would cost to institutionalize or incarcerate them long-term,” says Sutherland.

SCOPE isn’t the only program Regina Downtown BID has undertaken to revitalize the downtown. It’s also partnered with different organizations to hold evening and weekend activities such as Cinema Under the Stars, night-time farmers’ markets, concerts and cultural festivals.

Progress is slow, Veresuk admits, but there has been a measurable uptick in attendance. Cinema Under the Stars, for instance, regularly draws crowds in excess of 1500. Several pubs and restaurants are in the pipeline too, she adds, and once Gardens on Rose and Centre Square Plaza are finished the residential population will jump, too.

But SCOPE is a positive force too, says Veresuk.

“What I like about it is that they try to address the root of the problem and hook these kids up with support systems that they need,” she says.

“They want to help put these kids on the right path to become self-sufficient and productive members of society. Hopefully, by showing these kids some attention and letting them know that someone does care and wants to help them, they’ll be able to do that.”