Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

BIZ hires social workers in public-intoxication battle

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The Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone plans to hire social workers in an effort to reduce the roughly 3,500 arrests made every year for public intoxication in the city's commercial core.

The Downtown BIZ plans to hire two social workers in 2013 to help homeless people receive addictions treatment, seek help for mental-health issues and locate housing as part of a new program aimed at augmenting the long-running downtown patrols as well as police-cadet efforts to curb public drunkenness.

The new community homeless assistance team will be announced today at the BIZ's annual general meeting, executive director Stefano Grande said.

The idea is to match disadvantaged people with social services already offered by government and non-profit agencies, Grande said.

Many U.S. cities employ similar programs in their downtowns, he added.

"We can't have a complete downtown without dealing with the social issues," said Grande, noting improvements such as the redeveloped Metropolitan Theatre on Donald Street -- slated for a Nov. 30 reopening -- and the construction of the Centrepoint hotel, office and residential-tower complex north of Portage Avenue must be matched with improvements to living conditions for disadvantaged people.

Social workers will be hired to actively engage homeless people who reside along riverbanks, in back lanes and on sidewalks, Grande said.

Some of these people will accept treatment or the help of social services but do not know how to access programs or fear specific agencies and authorities, he said.

Non-governmental organizations such as Siloam Mission, the Salvation Army and the Main Street Project are extremely effective but cannot reach all homeless people, Grande said, referring to extremely at-risk people who have been refused help due to previous behaviour.

The Downtown BIZ already employs 25 paid patrol members and co-ordinates 200 volunteer patrol members.

A former outreach program, which dealt with intoxicated people, was disbanded after Winnipeg's auxiliary police cadets took over that role.

Grande said he considers the decision to hire social workers a matter of social responsibility.

He said his organization's members and all three levels of government support the move.

Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who chairs council's downtown committee, said he does not believe governments have offloaded any responsibilities to the private sector by effectively endorsing the funding of social workers by downtown businesses.

"At the end of the day, the Downtown BIZ is not providing social services. They're being a facilitator, acting as a conduit and a first point of contact," he said. "If it doesn't work, the (BIZ) members will say, 'put a lid on it.' "

The question of public intoxication in downtown Winnipeg came to a head in 2011 when Air Canada deemed downtown Winnipeg hotels too dangerous for its staff.

Earlier this month, downtown-development agency CentreVenture arranged the purchase of the St. Regis Hotel and announced plans to close its beverage room and beer vendor.

Other hotel purchases are possible.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2012 A5

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