Formerly homeless Oshawa mayor defends use of private security on city streets
'They're not there to harass or move people along,' says Mayor Dan Carter
The mayor of Oshawa is defending the Ontario city's decision to hire a private security firm for a three-month contract beginning July 1 to patrol its downtown core after a rise in homelessness.
Advocates for the homeless said the firm — which has in the past used guard dogs, Kevlar vests and batons while patrolling during other contracts — sends the wrong message to the homeless population.
Dan Carter, who was once homeless himself, said CDN Protection Ltd. has been instructed not to use guard dogs as part of its contract. He said it's part of a multi-faceted approach to compassionately care for the city's unsheltered population, some of whom have recently migrated to Oshawa from other parts of the province.
Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.
Mayor Carter, for our listeners who aren't familiar with Oshawa, can you paint a picture for us of what is happening on the streets there and why you felt it was necessary to hire a private security firm to patrol the downtown core?
We have a population about 172,000 people that call Oshawa home and has traditionally been known for General Motors in the automobile industry. But we also have been known as a caring, compassionate community.
For over 100 years, we've always been compassionate and kind to those individuals that are struggling, that are unsheltered or dealing with addictions.
But at the same time, what's happening is we have a criminal element that has also appeared in our community to take advantage of those individuals that are unsheltered, that are dealing with addiction and mental health.
And so we've had to do some extraordinary steps in regards to meeting the needs of not only those that are suffering, but how do we also meet the needs of our community to make sure it's safe, that people are getting the services that they need at the right time.
Why not use police or bylaw officers or social workers even to try to do this work and help people, as you say?
Well, we are. So we work with Durham Regional Police on a regular basis. As you can imagine, all police services nowadays are stretched to the limit.
We have two foot patrol officers through the daytime in our downtown core. And they've been helping us help individuals that are in our community: those that are committing crimes, that are here to deal drugs and sell drugs to those individuals that are addicted.
They're not there to harass or move people along. They're there to navigate support and help at the moment that somebody needs help.- Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter
And we don't want any of that type of criminal behaviour. So the police are doing a great job in regards to the criminal element of things.
Our bylaw officers are not equipped to deal with the severity of the mental health and addiction issues that we're now facing from a population we've never seen before. We're used to having an influx of individuals to come into our communities that are unsheltered, especially throughout the summer season, but it has exploded.
We've found out through our data that we have individuals from all across the province as far away as Hamilton or outside of Cobourg, north of Peterborough and of course, a lot of individuals from Toronto, that we just have not seen before. And the severity of their illnesses have brought a lot of complexities to our community.
Our colleagues at Metro Morning spoke to Christine Thornton, who leads the anti-poverty group in Oshawa called Dire. I'm sure you're familiar with it.
Yes, I'm very familiar with it.
Let's take a listen for a moment to what Miss Thornton told our colleagues in CBC Toronto.
I would like them to ask themselves if they would like to be treated like this when they were at their worst, because I certainly wouldn't if I was struggling and I'd lost everything, and I was on the streets, and the only thing that was my friend was perhaps a substance that made me feel a little bit less alone.
What I would want was compassion. I wouldn't want to be woken up with a dog or an angry security guard, who is frustrated because I've fallen asleep behind the automotive museum here or something.
What's your response to that, Mayor Carter? Is this really the best, most humane way to help people who are living on the streets?
I've heard this time and time again, you know, "Woken up with a canine." They do not.
Under the contract with the city of Oshawa, this security organization has been instructed, and it is part of their contract that they do not use their canine division, and they do not take pictures or video or anything else like that.
No. 2, they cannot be hands-on except for an emergency when they're trying to save someone's life by administrating naloxone, if somebody is OD'ing.
Their first line of defence is to be able to connect with the individual, find out how they can help that person at that particular time, navigate the system, make the calls that are necessary. And if criminal behaviour is underway, they call 911, and they get Durham Regional Police there.
And by the way, you know my background. Many viewers know the background that I struggled with addiction and mental health. I have never forgotten about my last day on the streets and my first day in recovery.
I take liberties when people say, "Maybe, he forgot." I never forgot. I remember that, day in and day out.
I continue to advocate and make sure that we bring the best services forward so those individuals that are suffering in our community no longer suffer.
What skills do these security guards have, do you think, to try to gain the trust of people who are homeless and on the streets?
For the first nine months [Oshawa's paramedic outreach program], were on the road, they would go into the tent cities where they were located. People would scatter. Because what it's about is building trust and understanding that somebody is not there to hurt, but they're there to help.
That's why the work that this company has done in our community and working with … the outreach workers plays such an important role, because they know some of these individuals.
So they have a specialized skill, not only understanding what services are available and how to navigate the system, but they do have trust from some of the population that is unsheltered and are in our community.
The other thing is they're specially trained in regards to de-escalating situations, and also they have specialized training in regards to people that may be going through a drug episode that can be very unpredictable at that time.
They're not there to harass or move people along. They're there to navigate support and help at the moment that somebody needs help.
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.