Downtown businesses have a new number to call when they see someone in distress

Downtown businesses have a new number to call when they see someone in distress
Downtown businesses have a new number to call when they see someone in distress
As outreach workers, Will Bartley (left) and Jason Smith aim to bridge the gap between local businesses and people experiencing the housing, mental health, and poisoned drug crises. (Photo: Will Pearson)

Around lunchtime one day in early March, a security guard at the Peterborough Public Library encountered a community member who was in distress.

The guard, Lexi Thynne, wasn’t sure what to do or how to help. But she didn’t want to kick the person out. “At the library we’re very inclusive,” she said. “We want to see everyone okay.”

So she put in a call to Will Bartley and Jason Smith, two new outreach workers at One City Peterborough. A few blocks up Simcoe Street at the Trinity Community Centre, Bartley and Smith took the call and put down their lunches to walk straight to the library.

Currents was on hand as the two outreach workers greeted the person who was having a hard time in the library’s foyer. They knew the individual, and they sat with him for 15 minutes or so. They held him up so he wouldn’t fall over as he emerged from what seemed to be an exhausted daze. They chatted and offered him a smoke and a ride back to the Trinity Centre, neither of which he accepted.

After his chat with Bartley and Smith, the person lifted himself up and decided to walk outside into the sunshine.

It was the first time Thynne had called Bartley and Smith for help, and she said she was happy with how quickly they arrived.

“The quick response is really helpful,” she said. “And it seems like they’re doing really good at actually helping people.”

After checking in a final time with the person, the outreach workers walked back to the Trinity Centre, where their interrupted lunches were waiting for them. That’s just a part of the job, Bartley said. “Every time you sit down to do something, you get a call for support.”

New outreach team aims to support the marginalized as well as local businesses

The Unity Project team checks in at Henry’s Barber Shop. The goal is to regularly visit every business to hear if they have concerns or know of anyone who might need some help. (Photo: Will Pearson)

Bartley and Smith are new to One City, and so is the program they’re implementing.

It’s dubbed the Unity Project. The goal is to provide rapid responses to people in distress as well as support to downtown businesses, who often find themselves on the frontlines of Peterborough’s housing, mental health, and poisoned drug crises, but unable to help or uncertain how.

Tori Silvera, co-owner of Wild Rock Outfitters on Charlotte Street, helped to get the initiative off the ground.

“There are often folks in the downtown who are struggling in various ways,” Silvera said. Previously, the first option for businesses when they saw people in distress was to call the police, she said. But often the people in question aren’t doing anything illegal, so the police “can’t actually be effective in that kind of scenario.”

Silvera said having police officers and security guards downtown is still important, but that this program offers businesses an additional resource they can turn to. “We needed an alternative,” she said.

Smith has visited most businesses downtown as part of his new job, and he said most of the owners are compassionate, but they experience burnout and fatigue. 

Business owners and their employees are “working hard every day to try to provide for themselves and their families,” Smith said. The regular disruptions from people who are struggling with mental health or other challenges “have led to some real frustration.”

“We’re all affected by these problems,” Bartley said. “It seems some of the businesses are as burnt out as some of the workers in [the social services] field can be.”

The Unity Project aims to address some of that burnout, and also change how the broader community views the downtown.

“The wider perception outside of the downtown is that downtown is unsafe, or at the very least uncomfortable,” said Silvera. “I really want that rhetoric to change.”

Alana Parisien, who manages the program, said they hope it “will help limit the feelings of lack of safety in the downtown [and] help people to feel more comfortable and supported and not so isolated and alone.”

Team is on-call five days a week

The Unity outreach team is on call between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. Smith estimates they’re getting between 2 and 4 calls for support every day, but he expects that number to rise as the warmer weather brings more people outside and businesses become more aware of the initiative.

The most common calls they get concern people who are loitering outside of businesses and people who are in visible distress – perhaps flailing their arms or screaming, said Bartley.

Parisien said there’s one simple thing that people usually need when they’re in crisis or having a hard time downtown: connection. 

“We engage in conversation,” Parisien said. Unity workers might invite someone for a walk and a chat, they said, or take them to a community agency where they can get help with things like finding housing. “The friendly face factor is really helpful.”

“The source of most of the calls that we get is somebody that feels like they’re not being seen,” said Bartley, who studied social service work and mental health and addictions at Fleming College. “We show up … and hold that space for the person to be able to communicate their needs.”

When they’re not responding to calls, the Unity team is out and about, checking in with community members downtown and handing out supplies. They carry snacks, cigarettes, naloxone, needle disposal gear, and educational pamphlets in their knapsacks.

When that’s not enough, they try to connect people with other resources. They carry consent forms that, once signed, give the outreach workers permission to collaborate with other agencies to learn more about someone’s needs and maybe make a referral.

The team also aims to check in with every downtown business at least once every two weeks to see if they need any support, too.

Program funded by downtown businesses

One City Peterborough runs the Unity Project. But it’s funded by downtown businesses themselves, with additional support from the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough and United Way Peterborough and District, according to One City’s executive director Christian Harvey. Harvey said downtown businesses are chipping in to cover about half of the project’s cost.

A small group of businesses, including Kit Croissanterie and Café, Dreams of Beans Café and Wild Rock, developed the idea together, according to Dreams of Beans owner Andrew MacGregor. More quickly came on board after that.

The initiative launched in January, and it’s funded for one year, Silvera said. But the hope is to continue it for longer.

Businesses aren’t just providing funding. Wild Rock donated bicycles, backpacks, and other gear for the team, Silvera said.

And other businesses are helping out in other ways. Tragically Dipped donut shop donates a dozen donuts every day so the outreach workers have treats to offer the people they meet in the streets. And there’s a standing offer from Dreams of Beans that if someone needs a coffee, the Unity workers can bring them to the café for one free of charge.

Should businesses fund social services?

It’s not the first time the business community has attempted to establish a more consistent presence downtown to respond to the escalating impacts of inequality.

In 2017, the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) ran a short-lived pilot project where private security guards were hired as “Downtown Ambassadors” to roam the streets to help shoppers feel more safe and deter people from engaging in “anti-social” behavior.

In 2022, city council approved funding for the DBIA to hire a “navigator” to “act as a bridge between the business community and the social service sector.” But almost a year later, city council voted to take the funding back and reallocate it.

The DBIA “recognize[s] the importance of addressing social issues to create a downtown environment that is welcoming for all,” according to board chair Sacha Lai-Svirk. “We are always pleased to see social service agencies stepping up to take on initiatives in the downtown and are supportive of their efforts to make a positive impact in this space.”

Silvera said there was discussion among some businesses about whether they should be the ones to fund this kind of a social program. Some businesses felt “a bit frustrated,” she said, because they believed “the municipality or the business association should fund it.”

Silvera said she understands that perspective, especially considering how many downtown businesses continue to struggle financially in the aftermath of the pandemic and continue to pay taxes to the city and levies to the DBIA. During budget talks last year, city council voted to increase the share of taxes that commercial property owners pay respective to residential ones, a move the local Chamber of Commerce criticized.

While she respects why some business owners were hesitant to support the initiative, Silvera said she feels differently.

“I do feel that businesses have a responsibility to care for the communities that they’re in,” she said.