The head of the Yukon RCMP says police are too often called on to deal with the homeless in Whitehorse. Chief Supt. Peter Clark says police are "the wrong tool, the last tool of support" for vulnerable citizens.
Clark spoke as part of a panel discussion on Friday, at a forum on vulnerable people. The event was organized by the city and the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.
"I'm kept awake at night by the fact that last year, in 2014, we arrested over 3000 citizens here in Whitehorse," Clark said. "Many of them are the vulnerable people we are talking about today, they are not criminals."
Clark said one woman in Whitehorse has spent 118 nights in custody, for her safety, and "118 times she has left our care." The woman has no criminal record, Clark said.
Clark told the forum that police are often frontline workers, trying to help people who are living with mental illness, food insecurity, homelessness and addictions, "things that police are not the best tool or the best response for."
Developing an action plan
More than 300 people attended the forum on Friday. Some were other frontline workers, there to talk about their experiences with people at risk. Some were citizens who came to listen and share ideas about how to better help the vulnerable.
"I have never met anybody who wants to be a drug addict, who wants to live on the streets," said Bill Bennett principal of the Individual Learning Centre. "We have two or three students attending our school every day who live in a shelter."
Bill Stewart, a psychologist who works at the Jackson Lake Healing Centre, said many people on the streets are struggling with shame, and have isolated themselves.
"The only medicine is connection," Stewart said. "Whatever we come up with, it has to involve re-connection, it has to involve reaching out."
Clark said the city's different organizations need to work together. He says one of the challenges faced by frontline support workers is that they can't share information about individuals who may be at risk.
Clark says a true collaborative approach requires "legislation, or policies, or practices that allow us to talk to each other about these clients."
The forum's goal on Friday was to develop some concrete ideas to help vulnerable people. Organizers say they'll develop an action plan based on what they've heard.