As the city continues to deal with the aftermath of the van attack on Yonge Street that left 10 dead and 14 injured, Victims Services Toronto has taken a lead role to ensure victims, their families and residents impacted have access to resources and someone supportive to speak with.
“It’s very, very busy. We’re getting a lot of calls. We have a lot of referrals. We’re going out on scene,” Bonnie Levine, executive director of Victim Services Toronto, told Global News on Wednesday.
“We’re a fairly small organization, so it’s all hands on deck and we’re making do with what we have.”
Toronto police were called to Yonge Street before 1:30 p.m. on Monday after officers received reports of a white rental van hitting a number of pedestrians while driving south toward Sheppard Avenue from Finch Avenue. The male driver, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, was arrested by police minutes later and later charged.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Chief Mark Saunders implored people affected by the attack to contact Victim Services Toronto.
“I don’t want people walking away thinking, ‘I need help but I can’t afford it’ or ‘I need help but I wasn’t a part of this investigation,” he said.
Since Monday afternoon, Levine said the non-for-profit charitable organization has received more than 120 phone calls from people seeking support.
“We are getting more and more requests for direct victim support and more and more families getting notified … it’s not getting less busy, it’s getting more busy,” she said.
“A lot of the calls for the first day-and-a-half were centred around looking for people. A lot of the calls were people who were there and were really shook up — really quite in a state of shock and weren’t functioning well.”
Levine said a team of crisis counsellors and trained volunteers have been working continuously to respond to the needs of people contacting Victim Services Toronto. She said people they have heard from include victims and family members as well as from residents who were in the area. Levine also said people who have experienced a traumatic event have experienced distress.
“They have been triggered by this event. Either they have been traumatized in other countries far away or have been in motor vehicle accidents where other people have been killed,” she said.
Levine said for people who call in, the counsellors will first hear the caller’s concern and work to determine the appropriate next steps.
“Over the phone, what we can do is really listen. A lot of people are just beginning to recognize that the event is really significantly affecting them. When you’re in a state of shock and your adrenaline is flowing, you may not recognize that you need help and that you’re really trying to make sense of something that is completely nonsensical,” she said, adding that if someone is in crisis, counsellors will come to them.
“Once the shock starts to wear off, people start feeling either very anxious, afraid, angry — there’s a whole range of emotions … We can do an assessment. We can provide a validation. Often people need that reassurance, especially if they don’t have a lot of family and friends to support them.”
But the organization doesn’t just provide counselling and emotional support. Staff and volunteers can also help the family members of victims who are critically injured with accessing funds, as a last resort, for accommodations, child care and flights for immediate family members.
Levine said the organization can also help the families and friends of those who died with funeral access funding for funeral costs from the provincial government if the victims lived in Ontario.
She also said staff can help with contacting family and assisting with international travel.
“If people are not thinking straight … and they want to contact family who are out of town, they need to arrange visitors’ visas, they want us to liaise with embassies, we’ll do all the practical things that people need in order to get through it,” Levine said.
Earlier this week, Mayor John Tory announced the City of Toronto is partnering with the Toronto Foundation and created the #TorontoStrong fund. She said those funds could help victims and their families in some cases.
For those who think they might need assistance, Levine had advice on things to look for.
“People sometimes feel disoriented and that they can’t think straight. Some people will feel it right in their centre … they’ll feel nauseous, they can’t eat, they can’t drink — not sleeping is also key — and feeling depressed is another sign of trauma,” she said.
“Sometimes people feel very angry. The emotions are right at the surface. If you’re under a lot of stress and someone says the wrong thing to you — people should be forgiving of that anger because it really does come out of a place of being traumatized.”
Meanwhile, Levine said there could be serious consequences if help isn’t accessed by those who need it.
“If you have been a witness or affected by this crime in any way, there are some long-term health effects of trauma if you don’t get assistance pretty early on,” she said.
“We know you have to have early intervention in order to mitigate the long-term health effects and health risks of trauma — post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping disorders, anxiety disorders, these are some of the results that can happen if your trauma goes unaddressed … no victim should suffer alone.”
To contact Victim Services Toronto, call 416-808-7066 or visit http://www.victimservicestoronto.com.