Anti-homelessness advocates in Oshawa are raising the alarm over the city's decision to pay a private security firm $100,000 to patrol the downtown core.
"One hundred thousand dollars could pay for a lot of hours of counselling, drug and alcohol treatment, psychological treatment, shelter spaces," said Christeen Thornton, executive director of DIRE, an anti-poverty group.
"All this is going to do is worsen the relations between an already extremely marginalized group and the city."
On June 9, city council approved a motion to hire CDN Protection Limited for three months. The contract began July 1.
The motion, put forward by Ward 3 Coun. Bradley Marks, argued there has been an increase in drug use, vandalism, graffiti and "public defecation" during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with an "increase of unsheltered people in the downtown."
So the security company was hired to "keep people aware of some of the bylaws that may be infracted in the downtown core," Marks explained.
Marks told CBC Toronto that without regular traffic in and around the downtown area because of COVID-19 restrictions, people experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues "were highlighted in an even more unfavourable light.
'Where are we asking people to go?'
"Nobody had any malice in their hearts toward any of the people who are down there," Marks added.
"It's just that we needed to create a welcoming atmosphere to all of the people of Oshawa, not just the people who are suffering from addictions, for instance."
But Sandra McCormack, executive director of Denise House, a shelter for women fleeing violence and abuse, believes the plan is "missing some pieces.
"What is the second part to that," she asked. "Where are we asking people to go and how are we supporting them?"
The president of CDN Protection Limited, Andrew Clarke, says while the private security firm makes it a priority to connect people on the streets with resources in the region, like local hubs, health services and emergency shelter spots, doing that is not always possible.
Kevlar, batons and guard dogs
"We have a job to do; we're not outreach workers. I know some people have difficulty getting into shelters — we hear about that all the time — but that is where we would direct them." Clarke said.
He adds that his company has built a relationship with the local community through volunteering security services to downtown missions, reversing multiple overdoses using Naloxone and generally taking a non-confrontational approach while on patrol.
In fact, Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter says one of the reasons CDN Protection Limited was chosen was because of their training in de-escalation and emergency medical aid.
But Thornton questions whether uniformed private guards should be providing these services in the first place — especially a company that has used guard dogs to escort people experiencing homelessness off private property in the past.
The mayor says CDN Protection Limited guards will not use dogs when on the city contract.
Thornton argues, however, that it makes little difference since the CDN guards are already known among those experiencing homelessness in the city for patrolling in protective Kevlar vests, with batons and guard dogs while carrying out private contracts.
"Even police officers who walk the beat don't have huge dogs. It sends a message to people on the streets that they're not welcomed here," she said.
Oshawa council also voted this year to extend a pilot program called Welcoming Streets, in which a community outreach worker pairs with a health professional to get people experiencing homelessness into shelters or to get them other kids of support they need.
The mayor, who has experienced homelessness himself in the past, said at the time it was part of a comprehensive approach the city is taking.
"That's what we need to be looking at," Thornton argued.
Fear or compassion?
Coun. Derek Giberson, who represents a downtown ward, acknowledges that individuals on the streets struggling with mental health and addictions may feel traumatized, cornered and intimidated by uniformed guards. But he says there are times when the skill-set of a community worker or nurse isn't enough.
Giberson says the community workers at the Back Door Mission, a community space he helps run, have reported feeling safer with CDN guards on patrol.
There are situations, he argues, in which security guards need to help deal with people who may become belligerent or refuse to comply.
Thornton, however, says she is a "5' 1", 130 lbs soaking wet woman" who has worked effectively with people experiencing homelessness for years.
"I think the city should assess whether their approach is coming from a place of fear or coming from a place of compassion."