At 9:30 on a cold Tuesday morning, I meet Wen Wang at his tiny office in Chinatown. The street is empty except for a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of possessions.
Storefronts are worn down and unwelcoming, and the tents of homeless people line nearby streets. Wang unlocks the door to let me in. “Whenever people talk about Chinatown, their first thought is, ‘Why do you go there?’” he says when we settle in. “Security is the number one thing.”
Chinatown is ground zero for Edmonton’s triple crisis of addiction, mental health and homelessness. Wang, as executive director of the Chinatown and Area Business Association, has been advocating for his community and the 130 members of his organization for the last three years.
While he is emphatic that he respects the work being done by nearby social service agencies, and he says the people who live on the streets need support and deserve respect, he points out that the Hope Mission, Boyle McCauley Health Centre and Boyle Street Community Services are all within a few blocks of Chinatown, as are three of the province’s seven supervised consumption sites.
“People come from all over the city to Chinatown to get the services,” he says. “We have many, many social agencies. They’re doing a great job, but it’s the number. Why do we have so much concentration in this one community?”
He tells me about the needle collection program the association started three years ago with Mustard Seed, a Christian social service agency based in the area. Clients of Mustard Seed are paid minimum wage to pick up hypodermic needles in and around Chinatown. “On average we pick up somewhere between 300 and 400 needles a month,” Wang says. “We start in spring, when the snow goes, and we go until December, 120 hours a month.”