Last week, Dr. Em Pijl, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge, presented to City Council “Urban Social Issues Study”, a study into the impacts the Lethbridge Supervised Consumption Site has had on the local neighbourhood.
Dr. Pijl’s research in general focuses on homeless, substance-using, and at-risk populations; social disorder in communities; health services for marginalized patient populations; and harm reduction services. This is important to note, as I’ve seen harm reduction advocates try to discredit the research she did for this study, mostly as a reaction to the media coverage of the study and not as a reaction to the study itself.
The study blew up on social media, with traditional media framing it as crime and so-called “social disorder” being on the rise since the SCS opened. Jason Kenney, likewise, latched onto that narrative, which boosted it among his followers, many of which oppose the SCS specifically and harm reduction generally.
However, there are a few findings that I thought were important to highlight, some of which others have covered some of which very few are discussing.
1. It studied perception of social disorder, not actual social disorder
This study did not study empirical data. It did not, for example, analyze actual crime data. What it did study was, according to the executive summary, “perceptions and observations of social disorder by business owners and operators in downtown Lethbridge”. This is important to highlight because, as others have noted, this is simply a measurement of what businesses in the area think they’ve seen. Not only that, but it required them to recall what they saw.
Take this question from the survey, for example, which was sent out 5 times:
In the area around your business, when did you, your staff or your customers see or experience the following activities?
Respondents were then asked to indicate whether they saw or experienced the activity never, more than 3 months ago, within the last 3 months, within the last month, or within the last day.
This relies on the business owners’ own perceptions, as well as their own memory, neither of which are testable or verifiable. And as the researcher noted, “experiences and observations were not consistent even between adjacent businesses, which suggests that observing, perceiving, and experiencing social disorder is impacted by many other factors.”
2. The top 5 observed activities were non-threatening
This study didn’t just ask about crime. It also asked about benign behaviour, such as people just standing around in an area. In fact, the most popular observation made by survey respondents was just that, people just hanging out, not doing anything particularly harmful or threatening. Of all the activities the survey asked about, loitering was the most most common observation.
As well, the top 5 behaviours reported—loitering, being intoxicated, yelling, sleeping, using drugs—are all benign activities, none of which are threatening to the general public, and are indicative of larger societal issues than whether the SCS exists. People have been loitering, intoxicated, sleeping, yelling, and using addictive substances in public for much longer than the SCS has existed.
3. Social disorder increased in all areas, not just around SCS
When you differentiate the activities based on the three sub-areas of the study—100 metres around the SCS, 500 metres around the SCS, and downtown proper—you find that the area closest to the SCS doesn’t actually have a significantly higher proportion of recalled observances of social disorder.
Take loitering for example. The mean for all three sub-areas is between 3 and 4. Same goes for the other top 4 behaviours: public intoxication between 3 and 4 for all sub-areas, drug usage between 2 and 3 for all sub-areas, and drug dealing between 1 and 2 for all areas.
In fact, some the behaviours measured by the study—drug dealing, urinating/defecating, panhandling, sex work, yelling, sleeping, and trespassing—increased in all three sub-areas. If the SCS was the cause of an increase in social disorder near the facility, we wouldn’t expect social disorder to increase for the 500-metre area or for the downtown proper area.
That tells me that something other than the SCS is causing the increase in activity (or more specifically the increase in recollected observation of the activities). One potential cause could be the drug crisis, which like so many other cities in Canada, Lethbridge is experiencing. The study’s author highlights that “the increasing incidence and prevalence of drug use is largely inseparable statistically from the impacts of the SCS.”
In other words, you can’t separate drug usage from the drug crisis and attribute it solely to the SCS.
4. The LPS refused to provide crime data
As I mentioned, this study focused on gathering observations, based on respondent recollection. While it did have some empirical data—DOT callouts, ARCHES needle pick-up, and EMS callouts—it lacked empirical crime data, which could have seriously augmented the findings. However, the lack of empirical crime data was not by design.
The researcher submitted three formal requests to the Lethbridge Police Service for crime and calls-for-service data for the study area. The lack of this information prompted Dr. Pijl to caution study readers that “the data is incomplete due to the failure of a key stakeholder to participate meaningfully. As such, the findings cannot be used in isolation for decision making.”
In conclusion, this study did not determine that crime or social disorder objectively increased downtown or near the SCS. Instead, it determined that people thought it was increasing. And while it might, indeed, be increasing objectively, this study did not find that. As well, those observations show increase in activity throughout the downtown and the Upper East Side, not just around the SCS, which indicates that something else is causing the increases (either separate from or in conjunction with the SCS).
Getting rid of the SCS, clearly, will not eliminate any of this behaviour—perceived or otherwise—from the downtown.