AFTER dealing with months of violent behaviour and vandalism, prompting repeated calls to Winnipeg police, the manager of a transitional housing shelter is speaking up about the need for trauma-informed responses to people who have underlying mental health conditions.
"If our only response is to call the police when something happens and their response is what we’ve seen, then we need to have a greater discussion about this and this needs to be more of a priority. Things need to change," said Aaron Black, general manager of Pan Am Place and Pan Am Boxing Club.
For the past four months, Black has been relying on police help to deal with incidents of threats, violence and vandalism at Pan Am Place.
The Exchange District transitional housing centre takes in men ages 18 to 30 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The program accepts men who are on bail, have been released from jail, have nowhere else to go and who voluntarily want to make a change.
One former resident, a 19-year-old who lived at Pan Am for roughly eight months, was discharged late last year because he was becoming violent. Soon afterward, the man began uttering threats and setting fires to the building or Black’s car — incidents captured on security cameras and sometimes personally witnessed by Black.
On one occasion, Black says the former client stabbed a knife through a window at the Arthur Street building. "He’s dealing with some pretty serious mental health issues. He has nowhere to go."
The young man has been in and out of custody, getting released with no support and continuing to commit crimes, becoming increasingly aggressive, Black said.
It’s a cycle Black wants to stop. "But when these violent things take place, we have no real other choice and we’re reliant on somebody to come in and intervene."
Black has called the Winnipeg Police Service emergency and non-emergency lines up to 10 times about the same individual in recent weeks. Officers have been responding and doing their job, he said, but their job doesn’t include the kind of specialized support he believes is necessary.
The WPS didn’t respond to requests for comment.
During an incident in mid-April, Black says a responding officer made insensitive comments after the 19-year-old had been arrested again. The accused was handcuffed in the back of the police car, intoxicated and screaming. It was clear he had mental health issues, Black said.
"The officer mentioned to me how part of him really would like to just Taser him to settle him down, and in that conversation with him, he was just saying, ‘This is what happens when you do drugs,’" Black said. "This whole thing was a result of a conscious choice, in his eyes, to use (drugs) rather than recognizing all the other pieces that conditioned him up to this point."
In December, a year-long municipal pilot project was announced to team some WPS front-line officers with mental health professionals from Shared Health’s Crisis Response Centre. Five months in to the Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis project, there’s been no public update.
A trauma-informed response is needed, "as well as more people trained in de-escalation," Black said.
Many other local non-profit shelters have been calling for the same. When there are safety concerns, non-profits have to call police, despite concerns about criminalizing behaviour rooted in poverty or trauma.
"I think all of the agencies are having a similar experience and none of us are wanting to create a solution that only works for us: we want a solution that works for the sector," said Siloam Mission chief executive officer Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud.
Siloam has a good relationship with police, Whitecloud said, "But it would be a better opportunity for us and for the person being served if instead they had a mental health response or a supportive response that included after care, that included counselling."
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened challenges for clients and staff, said Maj. Gordon Taylor, executive director of the Salvation Army’s Winnipeg Centre of Hope.
"It’s definitely become even more of a strain during the last couple of years," he said. "The COVID fatigue and everything related to it has increased mental health issues, but it’s also, on the other side of things, definitely worn down the resiliency of the employees who work in the field with that clientele."
He estimated the agency, whose work includes operating emergency shelter beds and a transitional housing program, calls police for help daily.
Many of the existing agencies and programs are underfunded, Taylor said.
"Whether it’s shelters, police, mental health workers, everyone’s trying to do their best and trying to work together, but there’s just limitations to the way things are currently structured, and a better way needs to be found."
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.