Extend hours for social workers to help address root causes of crime in Winnipeg, report says

A new report from a Winnipeg community organization says the city's downtown could be made safer and friendlier by addressing the root causes of crime.

3rd part of downtown safety series from community advocate Sel Burrows focuses on root causes

Sel Burrows is the co-ordinator of Point Poweline and the author behind a new report focused on preventing crime by addressing its root causes. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

A new report from an inner-city citizen watch group says Winnipeg's downtown could be made safer and friendlier by tackling the root causes of crime, through initiatives like making sure social workers are available when people most need them.

The report from community advocate Sel Burrows, which is the third in a three-part series, comes following a Manitoba Police Commission report on downtown safety that was "seriously flawed," according to the co-ordinator of Point Powerline.

"It was so narrow," said Burrows. "It wasn't addressing the larger issues."

That prompted the long-time community organizer to release the first in his own series of reports in December, focused on getting residents who live in the city centre involved in identifying potential crime and reporting criminal activity.

The second report examined how existing resources could be mobilized to help prevent crime — by encouraging cab drivers to act as tipsters, for example.

The latest report looks at preventing crime through addressing its root causes.

Burrows suggested the lessons his group has learned from community-building in North Point Douglas could be transferred to downtown and other Winnipeg neighbourhoods.

"I think I should say that we are in crisis situation, and that everybody wants these initiatives to succeed," Burrows said.

"When you have a crisis, doing more of the same is not going to be successful. We need to reach out and use different initiatives here."

Burrows noted that other groups, like the tri-level illicit drug task force, have already identified some strategies for dealing with crime in Winnipeg.

His report identifies several other ways to address root causes of crime, including keeping youth in school, providing summer job opportunities for disadvantaged youth, preventing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, cracking down on money laundering and delivering more social services on evenings and weekends.

Shifting availability

Burrows says many social workers with the province are often restricted to working regular office hours.

But to deal with situations that involve mental health, and to relieve police from dealing with issues that are non-criminal in nature, he said more social workers need to pick up shift work.

"If they're not available when crises hit, then it's left for the police to handle. Most police are really good people, but they aren't trained and they aren't the most appropriate people to be handling social service type issues."

Burrows, a former children's aid social worker, said vulnerable youth and their families must be able to get assistance without missing work.

"If you've got an entry-level job [or] you're getting back into work, and you're having problems with your kid at home and you need the help of a social worker, if you take time off work to see a social worker, you're likely to get fired," Burrows said.

Other jurisdictions have seen a drop in police responding to mental health service calls by transitioning more social workers to shift work, he said.

"I suspect I will lose a lot of friends" by making the suggestion, he said.

"They're not going to be happy about working shift work, but police work shifts, nurses work shfits, paramedics work shifts, doctors work shifts in emergencies. Why shouldn't social service workers be working shifts?"

More flexibility

In a statement, a spokesperson for the province said it has made investments over the last several months in "flexible services that respond directly to community needs."

Manitoba's Department of Families is considering how it might be able to provide additional services to clients outside of typical business hours, which could include partnering with even more community agencies.

"It is important to note that individuals in mental health crisis may be better served by health-care or community-care providers who have appropriate expertise," the government spokesperson said.

Earlier this month, the City of Winnipeg appointed Burrows to work on long-term strategy with its crime prevention planning committee.

He said he attended his first meeting last week, and will be focusing his crime prevention and community building efforts here.


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