Downtown businesses get lesson in 'compassionate' approaches to homeless

A group of businesses in downtown Toronto have taken a new training course to help them de-escalate interactions with agitated homeless people. Here's what they learned.

20 businesses in the Downtown Yonge BIA have received the 3-hour training course

Salad King owner Alan Liu said his staff sometimes had to 'make up' strategies to deal with the homeless. (CBC)

Staff at the downtown Thai restaurant Salad King are well-trained for almost every task of their job — from efficiently seating customers at communal tables to recommending spice levels for the eatery's notoriously spicy dishes.

What's more difficult?

How to handle the occasional homeless person who wanders into the business in a state of distress.

"When it does arise, we don't always feel that we're equipped to deal with the situation," said the restaurant's owner, Alan Liu. "Without the knowledge, sometimes we have to make up things on the spot."

To give his staff a better chance at successfully de-escalating those interactions, Liu recently signed up for a training session from the SPOTS program — an acronym for "Supporting People on Our Streets."

The three-hour session included both front-line staff and managers. It was run by experts from shelters and a formerly homeless person.

Homeless people occasionally camp out inside Salad King on cold days, management said. (CBC)

So far, 20 Yonge Street businesses have taken part through the local business improvement association.

"We determined that there was significant need for this type of training," said Mark Garner, CEO of the Downtown Yonge BIA.

"My staff and I feel we're much better equipped to handle any situations that may arrive," Liu said.

What they learned

The sessions begin with an overview of the challenges facing Toronto's homeless and the reasons why people end up in that position to begin with.

Homeless people live under a near-constant threat of violence and with uncertainty about almost every aspect of their lives, instructors explain.

"If you have a better understanding of that, it enables you to start from a more compassionate place," said Susan Bender, the manager of the Toronto Drop-in Network.

The subsequent interaction should be humane, above all else.

A simple greeting and exchange of names is a great place to start, she said, then you could ask the person how you can help them.

"Your interaction with them can change their day," Bender said.

Susan Bender, manager of the Toronto Drop-in Network, helped coordinate the training program. (John Lesavage/CBC)

If the person doesn't respond well — body language is a good clue — she said it's also important that employees know the limits of what they can offer, and look for external help when necessary.

The city's Homeless Help website offers some suggestions.

In a case that appears to be turning violent, Bender recommends people keep their distance, know how to exit a space and call 911 immediately.

Lack of services

While she said the program is likely to direct more homeless people towards professional help, Bender also noted that the city's homeless services are already struggling to keep up with demand.

"They're really overstretched," she said. "We can't talk about these issues without realizing some of the systemic problems."

Those problems include funding and affordable housing, she said, which the BIA and Toronto Drop-in Network could work together to address.

The new year may bring some opportunity for that.

"We're hoping to grow this program in 2018," Garner said.


Nick Boisvert is a multimedia journalist at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He previously covered municipal politics for CBC News in Toronto. You can reach him at