Edmonton police, social agencies learn arena district lessons from Toronto

In the shadow of Edmonton’s largest construction project are hundreds of homeless people. It’s a reality that prompted social agencies which work with the homeless and police to take a trip together to Toronto, to learn how that city’s arena district co-exists with the people who call the streets home.

A good relationship is essential, they say

The arena and the accompanying entertainment district is expected to change the face of downtown Edmonton. What does this mean for the city's homeless population? Police, social agencies and people from the city recently visited Toronto to learn from that city's downtown arena experience. 1:42

In the shadow of Edmonton's largest construction project are hundreds of homeless people.

It's a reality that prompted representatives of social agencies working with the homeless and police to take a trip together to Toronto, to learn how that city's arena district co-exists with people who call the streets home.

Their takeaway?

A good relationship is essential between police, the city and agencies that help the homeless.

"The focus of the trip was just to find out best practices," explained Edmonton acting police Insp. Sid Kingma.

"The police members, the shelter people and the city of Edmonton people — the relationship between all of us really benefited from that trip."

Toronto not centre of universe

"One thing we learned is Toronto isn't the centre of the universe," said Boyle Street Community Services executive director Julian Daly, one of 20 people who went on the trip.

"We're doing a lot of things they do there," he said.

Some of the issues facing Toronto's downtown entertainment district are expected to play out here; for example, panhandling outside hockey games and confrontations between sports fans and homeless people.

Toronto's arena district is a little different from Edmonton's. Toronto has two big arenas in its downtown entertainment area, but its homeless shelters are not clustered in the area, as they are in Edmonton. 

Daly said he learned from the Toronto visit there are very few problems between the homeless and those who attend big events there.

But when there are problems, one officer told him the homeless are often the victims.

"The biggest policing challenge in Toronto in terms of street-involved people and homeless people are young men coming out after a game intoxicated and thinking it's a bit of a sport or a laugh to find a homeless person and beat them up or attack them," said Daly.
Rogers Place arena is under construction in downtown Edmonton. Nearby are several agencies that help the city's homeless population. (CBC)

Kingma wasn't part of the conversation on attacks on homeless people in Toronto. But he said Edmonton police will work to prevent any violence in the arena district.

"If something like that were to happen here, if there is any sort of allegation of criminality, that would be investigated on a case by case basis," he said.

To beef up police presence in downtown Edmonton, specifically around the arena, 40 new officers will be hired.  

"You'll end up seeing more policemen on foot, segways and bikes," said Kingma, adding it's hoped the "bigger social presence" for officers will make it more accessible for an average person to walk up and talk to police.

Oilers want to be a good neighbour

No one from the Oilers Entertainment Group was on the Toronto trip. But spokesperson Tim Shipton said the Oilers are working with the city, police and inner-city agencies to come up with a plan on urban social issues downtown.

Shipton said the Oilers want to be a good neighbour at a time when downtown is booming.

Edmonton's new Rogers Place arena, nestled within the 25-acre Ice District, is expected to open in time for the 2016/2017 NHL season.

That leaves time to keep developing the relationships between the Oilers, the city, police and homeless people before the full opening of the district, which spans between 101st Street to 104th Street and 103rd Avenue to 106th Avenue.  

"We have the street diversion work, we have the 24/7 work done by Reach Edmonton," said Daly, alluding to the council that strives to make Edmonton safer through crime prevention initiatives.

Daly said he thinks overall, Edmonton is on the right track with its programming.

"We really want to continue to build on that because Toronto reminded us how well that works. We want to make sure that's really in place and strong for when the arena opens."




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