‘It hits closer to home’

At a school known for its close-knit community and school spirit, it is often hard to remember that Laurier exists within a city with its own population and its own problems. Among these issues is crime.

While break-ins and assaults have always occurred in the area, a recent spurt of crime in Northdale has brought safety to the forefront for many students and permanent residents.

On Oct. 5, a female student was assaulted by three men near the intersection of Hickory Street and Hazel Street. And while she escaped, she called in another assault at a later date, though police are still investigating the information provided from both reports.

This Saturday, at the boundaries of Northdale near Regina Street and University Avenue, several masked individuals broke into an apartment and robbed its residents at knife-point.

It is events like these that call into question the safety of individuals in the community, whether students or permanent residents.

The problem

“It definitely hits closer to home when you feel like it’s one of us,” said fourth-year psychology student Jenn Rae, who has been a resident of the area for three years.

“It’s part of our community, someone who you can identify with,” said Rae. Speaking about the woman assaulted while running on Oct. 5, she stated, “I could have been that young woman.”

Permanent resident Deb Easson told The Cord that she feels saddened by the situation.

“A young woman jogging alone at 12:30 at night is putting herself in a precarious situation, but at the same time, she should be safe, and obviously wasn’t, and that really alarms me,” she said.

While Laurier’s Foot Patrol service training executive Andrew McKay noted that he still sees the Laurier community as safe, he explained that incidents like Oct. 5’s assault have had a marked effect on the number of calls made by students requesting a walk home, attributing this to “cautiousness.”

Kayla Kneisel, a Foot Patrol volunteer, told The Cord that “at the start of the year before the attacks it was pretty normal, but after that it spiked pretty badly.”

She noted that many of the walks she has done have been to Spruce Street, a dimly lit street in Northdale.

While Rae noted that she feels “wary” walking home at night, she stressed that the problem is not unique to Northdale.

“I have a couple friends living in the same neighbourhood who have had experiences but I don’t think it’s something unique to Laurier because friends I have from other schools are having the same kinds of problems,” said Rae.

For Easson, who believes Northdale’s rate of crime is too high for its size, the situation is serious. Easson, who rents out the bottom unit of her house to students, specifically noted that when the regional police began handing out suspect identification charts in September, she knew Northdale’s crime rates were a cause for concern.

“I have to say a chill went though me when I read that. It’s even hard for me when we have tenants coming to look at the house and they ask if it’s a safe neighbourhood and I have to think twice when I answer them,” she stated.

And for some who have been affected directly by the neighbourhood’s crime, it is hard not to have an altered perception of the community’s safety.

Michael Ford, a fourth-year economics student, and Matt Donohue, a fourth-year business student, became the victims of an arson committed on Dec. 26, 2009, while the two were home for the holidays. It was later discovered that the arson— which destroyed the entire house and its contents — was part of a string of two other break-and-enters on the street committed by high school students.

Ford explained that the perpetrators likely knew it was a student house and that its tenants would be home for the holidays. He added that the experience has not only changed his perception of the safety of student neighbourhoods, but also made him unlikely to inhabit the area again.

“It’s a bad experience. It’s certainly put me off from living there again,” said Ford.

The causes

Easson noted that the crime rate in Northdale is abnormally high, stating, “We’re a very small area … to have the rate of crime that we have…. The proportion of it in such a small area is quite excessive.”

While Easson explained that she by no means blames students or feels resentment towards them, she explained that their pattern of temporary tenancy contributes to the problem.

“I think we are all more vulnerable in here because of the very fact [that students live here]. Because it is known as the student neighbourhood and because students are easier marks,” said Easson.

She noted that students often fall prey to crime because of their patterns of absence on weekends or holidays, as well as the tendency not to lock doors and to be on the streets very late at night.

Tara Sclupp, a landlord in Northdale, stated that from her experience she has only had a few incidents with tenants. However, she explained that “generally it’s happened on Halloween … or over Christmas when we’ve had maybe a couple thefts.”

She also noted that often when she visits her tenants, she is surprised to find their doors unlocked, which she sees as something that needs to be addressed.

Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) public affairs co-ordinator Olaf Heinzel stated that students can sometimes be careless, making it easier for perpetrators to commit crimes.

“What we’re finding with student housing particularly is when you have multiple individuals living in a building there’s the tendency for some individuals to be more responsible than others,” said Heinzel.

Ford also noted that, he believes that because of the poor shape many houses in Northdale are currently in, he sees break-and-enter and property damage as a threat.

“It would definitely contribute to the amount of crime. When the houses are less than ideal, I’m sure more crime would occur to them,” said Ford, explaining that poorer quality housing can sometimes lead to a lack of respect for the properties of others.

According to Jeff Henry, the Ward 6 (which comprises Northdale) city councillor, it is important to ensure that our accommodations are well-maintained and safe. He noted that it is the right of every tenant to demand corrective action from his or her landlord to improve his or her living conditions.

“We all have to be part of making that a little bit less attractive and a little bit less easy [for criminals]…. I don’t think it’s about the fact that we have students and not students. I think it’s made for a bit of an easier target so we should make sure we have safer accommodations,” said Henry.

Rae explained that part of the problem is that for many students, safety is just not a concern.

“It’s kind of a symptom of this kind of population. It’s your first home and people often don’t know how to keep themselves safe yet. It’s something you learn and it’s not a priority yet. Many people don’t treat it as a home and are just sort of passing their time here. And as a result, they don’t appreciate that need,” said Rae.

As a permanent resident, Easson has noted that the temporary nature of students’ tenancies and the aging, dwindling population of permanent residents has created a reduction of trust within the Northdale community.

“We don’t have a sense of community,” said Easson. “Students are here for a short time and gone, and it creates a situation where people don’t know who their neighbours are.”

For Rae, the diversity of Ward 6’s population — coupled with the inherent systemic problems within the area — may also contribute to some of the crime within the community.

“Different residents are using it for vastly different purposes,” said Rae.

“I have neighbours raising children and some who are elderly and some like you who are students. We all have very different needs I think and those aren’t being met and I think the recent surge of crime is reflective of bigger issues.”

The solutions

For Easson, it is difficult to envision a way that the crime rates can be lowered in Northdale.

“It’s almost unsolvable,” said Easson. “I think that’s sort of the message we’ve gotten from living here…. There’s just nothing by-law can really do about it or the police.”

She explained that many of the crimes — such as vandalism or theft — tend to involve a situation in which the culprit has fled the scene too quickly to take any action; and that police have told her there is little that can be done.

While Statistics Canada’s Police Reported Crime Statistics from 2009 have placed Waterloo well below the national average in terms of crime severity, Heinzel explained that with regard to crimes such as assaults, there are still preventative actions that can be taken.

Heinzel said that while “everyone has a different threshold for what they believe is risky or what they feel comfortable with,” it is important that the city’s residents make sure they are aware of their surroundings and that they report any suspicious occurrences in their neighbourhood.

As far as what can be done from within the university, McKay explained that FOOT does nightly “sweeps” of campus and neighbourhoods around the university to check for any potentially dangerous situations.

He also explained that as a resource, FOOT ensures that students always have an option when they feel unsafe on campus so that they are “never alone.”

Henry noted that while the situation may seem hopeless, Northdale residents can improve the situation by keeping their “eyes on the street and fostering a strong environment.

“If we try to vision a neighbourhood we want, it’s safe, affordable and actually fosters community,” he said.

“With a lot of work, as a community, we must work to shape a vision of what we want.”

Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) safety tips

  • “Think about your personal safety
    first. If you can get out of the home
    and call police, do so as quickly as
    you possibly can but don’t do
    anything that would put your personal
    safety in jeopardy.”

    “If you do need to walk by yourself,
    it’s a good idea to let somebody in
    your household know where you’re
    going, when you’re expected to arrive
    and what route you’re taking and
    stick to that route.”

    “If you’re walking by yourself
    especially you should stay on
    well-lit streets with people around
    and keep your cell phone on you.”

    “We’re finding it seems that people
    who have been assaulted or attacked
    it’s often been from behind when
    people were wearing earphones….
    What we would encourage people to do
    is have them set at a volume where
    you can hear what’s going on around

    “Keeping a look around and know
    what’s going on and don’t advertise
    the fact that you are unaware.”

    “As far as doors and windows and the
    security of the house if you have any
    concerns first thing you should do is
    to discuss it with your landlord….
    If you have concerns with the quality
    of the locks brings those to the
    attention of your landlord.”

–From an interview The Cord conducted with Olaf Heinzel, WRPS Public Affairs Co-ordinator