Corporate security at the City of Calgary has removed a number of chairs in the municipal atrium outside council chambers for security purposes, with one critic saying it’s a move that targets a space where the city’s most vulnerable have been known to gather.
Previously, 12 chairs were set up in groups of four on the west side of the municipal atrium. The chairs were set up in pairs facing each other, providing a place were people could sit and talk.
Only four chairs remain in the original space, and they no longer face each other. In a statement, corporate security said several chairs were moved to the south side of the atrium, and four were removed altogether.
“Public seating on the north-west side of the Municipal Atrium was rearranged earlier this month as a security measure to improve sight lines near Council Chambers,” read the statement.
“There are no current plans to return the seating to previous state. Corporate Security continues to assess security measures and collaborates with Facility Management on solutions in our public spaces, including the new security gate system that allows for public Plus-15 access during after-hours.”
Euan Thomson, a harm-reduction advocate with Each+Every, said it’s well known that unhoused people would often use the chairs as a place to stay warm during the day. He was critical of the chairs’ removal.
“I think city administration and city council here seem to be signalling that they’re worried about being harmed by unhoused people in their vicinity,” said Thomson.
He said the real danger is faced by unhoused people every day when they don’t have safe and warm places to go.
“It’s important for city administration and city councillors to see the realities of what their policies are doing at the street level and to keep that at the front of their minds at all times,” said Thomson.
Coun. Courtney Walcott said he’s never had a negative experience with people seated in that area.
“I felt more threatened during a public hearing with homeowners than I’ve ever been threatened by anyone who’s unhoused in the chambers or outside the atrium,” he said.
The Ward 8 councillor said while he understands and in some ways shares in Thomson’s concerns, he also does not blame corporate security for the decision to remove some of the chairs.
Walcott said he has the information he needs to manage his safety when he’s walking into a contentious public hearing, but security is dealing with more unpredictable matters at all hours of the day.
“When it comes to the unhoused, corporate security doesn’t have that information so they can expect an action or reaction,” said Walcott. “It becomes very challenging, I can imagine, to try and plan for that.”
Walcott said he and other councillors have been talking about how to change the public space within the atrium to make it safer and more inviting for everyone. He said there will be examples of that during the Chinook Blast festival as the space becomes a market for vendors.
“I think the conversation that I want to have is, whose job is it to make a place safe and welcoming? I don’t actually think that is security’s job,” said Walcott. “Security is about planning for the reactions, but proactivity is what will make a place a community.”
Rob Williams is manager of security and emergency services at Bow Valley College, which has its south campus next door to the municipal building. He also chairs the Downtown Coordinated Safety and Security Committee, which gathers together security representatives from many downtown organizations and institutions for regular meetings.
He said social disorder is nothing new in the core, but the committee is always trying to share information to find better solutions to the problem.
“That’s the key thing,” Williams said. “If we can communicate with each other and then we can come up with more solid plans to address issues just to make it more vibrant and safe in the downtown core.”
Williams said over several years, they’ve all seen the value provided by Alpha House’s Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership, better known as the DOAP Team.
“And now most of us can contact the DOAP Team directly for these matters, and it’s freed up the police to deal with the more serious matters where the DOAP Team has the specialists with them that can deal with people so they get to the right location,” said Williams.
A spokesperson for the city said public access to the atrium has not been impacted by the chair removals, and it remains a space where anyone — including vulnerable Calgarians — can access an indoor heated space.
The spokesperson also said corporate security staff are trained to assess vulnerable Calgarians and work with other city business units like Alpha House or the DOAP Team to help those facing challenges find support.