Community activists who work with the homeless in Oshawa are expressing great concern after the city hired a private security company to patrol its downtown.
Councillors say it’s necessary as there’s been a spike in drugs, vandalism and the number of people living on the streets since the pandemic began.
“Being woken up by somebody in a uniform demanding that you pack up all your things and move within a very short period of time…It’s traumatic,” said Christeen Thornton, executive director at DIRE, a research organization that also does community outreach in Oshawa.
The city spent $100,000 to hire guards at CDN Protection Ltd. for a three-month contract which started in July. A motion was passed at Oshawa council to hire the guards following reports of vandalism, increased drug use and homelessness amid the pandemic.
“We’re being told that they’re there to deter vagrancy that is seemingly increasing downtown, but what are we doing about the housing issue?” said Thornton.
“Where are these individuals meant to go? We don’t have enough beds.”
Ward 4 city councillor Derek Giberson, who works closely with Oshawa’s homeless population, says the investment was made to prevent illegal activity, not to necessarily ask individuals to leave.
“I think that’s a big misunderstanding,” Giberson said.
“The things they’re primarily concerned with are situations where people are doing something that’s not legal and not safe. But a homeless person spending time at a park, the security guard isn’t going to tell them to leave that park.”
Although the company has used K9 dogs in the past, they won’t be doing so in their current contract with the city.
“Whether or not they have the dogs with them, that premise is there that it’s threatening, it’s intimidating,” Thornton said.
In addition to having crisis management and de-escalation training, the guards will also be carrying naloxone.
Staff say their main goal is to develop a relationship with unsheltered individuals.
“We obviously want to build a good rapport with these individuals, that’s the main priority. We want to try and recommend resources they can go to,” said Andrew Clarke, president of CDN Protection Ltd.
However, the company says people on certain properties will be forced to move if asked.
But Thornton fears having security patrol downtown Oshawa could result in tensions between individuals and authorities similar to 2019, when people moved deep into a forest near Quebec Street after being forced by law enforcement to pack up and leave the area.
Following the order, Thornton said, “we saw an increase in the number of overdoses, so people were going further into the woods because they didn’t want to have to deal with the hassle of being forced to move along again.”
Going forward, the community activist hopes the city will invest more wisely, saying $100,000 towards drug and alcohol treatments would have been more beneficial.
In response to this criticism, Giberson says “the security is just a very small piece of the whole and it’s not meant to be the be-all and the end-all to some of the challenges we are facing”
“They are very complex challenges.”