No safe harbour amid mental health, addictions storm

It is not hard to imagine Tyree Cayer was looking for salvation when he ran into the Millennium Library on the damp and slushy afternoon of Dec. 11.

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Opinion

It is not hard to imagine Tyree Cayer was looking for salvation when he ran into the Millennium Library on the damp and slushy afternoon of Dec. 11.

It was about 4 p.m., and Cayer was pursued into the downtown civic facility by a group of teenagers. On the main floor, a confrontation ensued — about what, we still do not know. There are only two things we know for certain:

First, the confrontation came to an end when Cayer — a troubled young man who suffered from mental health issues and had been periodically homeless — was fatally stabbed. (A 14-year-old boy faces a second-degree murder charge; a 14-, 15- and 16-year-old have each been charged with manslaughter.)

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Tyree Jamal Cayer.

Second, it appears Cayer entered the library on the mistaken belief it would be a safe place.

Lamentably for all involved, a lack of attention to the root causes of homelessness, mental health and addictions outside, and a completely inadequate approach to security inside, meant the library was not the harbour Cayer had hoped it would be.

Let’s be perfectly clear: a more robust security presence inside the library may not have spared Cayer in the long term. Even if the accused had been stopped from entering the library, it’s not hard to imagine the fatal confrontation taking place at some other time, in some other location.

Right now, the library is caught between its best efforts to be a safe place for all, and two levels of government that have fallen well short of providing the resources to make that a reality.

Consider recent changes in the way the Millennium Library operates, along with the steps taken to make the facility safer for staff and patrons.

In 2019, the city tried to combat rising violent incidents by stopping all patrons for a bag search and a scan with a metal-detecting wand. It was a hilariously cheap approach to enhanced security that led to protests.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Millennium Library temporarily closed after a fatal stabbing earlier this month.

Those measures were removed the following year, a period during which the library was frequently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the building reopened last year, on a more or less normal schedule, the metal detectors were gone.

Flash forward to April, when the city converted a former café in the lobby of the Millennium Library into what is now known as Community Connections.

Billed as an alternative approach to improving security, Community Connections would be staffed by community crisis workers and representatives of community agencies to help people access essentials such as shelter, social assistance, employment, acquiring ID, mental health and addictions services and other basic needs.

It was a good idea many libraries around the world have embraced. However, in classic Winnipeg fashion, there are signs it was never adequately resourced.

Librarians — not trained to work in social services — are often called upon to staff the desk in Community Connections. And while there are social workers with crisis intervention training available, there are not enough of them to cover every hour the library is open.

Then there is the issue of security.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

While there are social workers with crisis intervention training available, there are not enough of them to cover every hour the library is open.

In the United States, to combat the rise in violence at libraries, many have abandoned the traditional security guards in favour of highly trained crisis intervention staff available at all times of the day and night.

In Winnipeg, the support is not nearly comprehensive enough, and the Millennium still relies too heavily on private security guards better suited to combating shoplifters than de-escalating violent confrontations.

It is important to note the City of Winnipeg is not solely to blame for the failure to provide proper resources. Outside the Millennium Library — where homelessness driven by mental health and addictions are a constant presence — the city should be getting better support from the provincial Progressive Conservative government.

Unfortunately, it is having trouble escaping its ideological bubble when it comes to downtown dysfunction.

Recently, Manitoba Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard visited a safe-injection site in Vancouver. She was offered a tour of the facility, where addicts are allowed to use drugs under medical supervision. She declined the invitation, the B.C. mental health ministry said.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard.

Still, Guillemard posted images on social media suggesting she had taken the tour. She then indicated her government would not support the establishment of similar sites in Manitoba.

This isn’t just an embarrassing story about a politician being caught in a fib. It’s a graphic reminder the provincial government is simply not prepared to do the heavy lifting to deal with addiction and its close cousin, mental health.

Yes, the Tories are supporting more shelter beds and they have provided resources and held news conferences supporting involvement in a downtown safety initiative. But if Cayer’s death proved anything, it is they’re not doing enough.

Insufficient crisis intervention resources. Bargain-basement security measures. Ideological aversions to direct interventions for the most vulnerable living on the streets.

Put it all together and then ask yourself: what did we think was going to happen?

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

History

Updated on Monday, December 19, 2022 9:45 PM CST: Clarifies info about Guillemard's offer to tour a safe-injection site

Updated on Tuesday, December 20, 2022 10:16 PM CST: Corrects date of library death

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