Edmonton’s downtown mall partners with Boyle Street on ’empathy-led security’

The mall in downtown Edmonton is teaming up with Boyle Street Community Services to develop a proactive and empathetic plan to address ongoing security issues involving the city’s most vulnerable population.

Edmonton’s City Centre Mall is dealing with an increase of social disorder spilling in the doors and it’s time to start a conversation on what the mall’s responsibilities are, according to general manager Sean Kirk.

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“Because of the individuals that we are seeing, because of the complexities of their issues, our security staff have to be trained in a little bit of a different way to have different types of interactions,” said Kirk.

Earlier this month, the mall came under criticism after a video was posted to social media showing mall security arresting a homeless woman accused of trespassing. Inner city advocates said the tactics were too aggressive.

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The mall didn’t comment on that specific case, but Kirk said sometimes arrests have to be made to keep other mall patrons safe.

“It’s a fine line in many cases,” he said.

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“Ultimately we’re trying to ensure that the safety of the individual is there as well … Sometimes we do have to move people out or conduct an arrest, whether it’s a theft or something that is more aggressive.”

Global News’ Dan Grummett was invited to tag along with City Centre security guards Thursday. Jamieson Galloway with Paladin Security said there are many out-of-scope duties he has to deal with when working at the mall.

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He says it’s not uncommon for him to find people overdosing, blue from lack of oxygen, requiring multiple rounds of naloxone and chest compressions.

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Despite this, Galloway said interacting with the vulnerable population is something he loves about coming to work.

“It could be starting a five-minute conversation that leads into a two-year relationship with a community member of downtown, or just a one-day conversation where someone kind of spills their whole life story into you and you have a better idea of who they are and where they’re coming from and why they’re in the current situation they’re in,” he said.

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Galloway has seen downtown residents affected by the opioid crisis in different ways.

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“I see people that I know and met a year ago and they’re in recovery and they’re getting better and there’s people that I’ve seen relapse. There’s people that I’ve built and established that relationship with and they have passed away due to overdoses,” he said.

“It’s just an ongoing circle and you can’t save them all.”

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The mall started a partnership with Boyle Street Community Services about three months ago. Brenna Gavel is part of a team that patrols the mall and surrounding areas. She does proactive work, providing necessities like food, water and clothing. She also responds to overdoses. Carrying a radio, she can be called when security guards are dealing with a vulnerable person.

“We’re in the moment with that community member – what does de-escalation look like? What does involving your cultural awareness look like when you’re dealing with an Indigenous person? How can you understand their trauma? How can you take that trauma-informed approach to impact your empathy-led security here?” she said.

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Gavel is able to quickly connect people with Boyle Street’s programs.

“We’ve been able to get people housing in a couple of weeks, which is kind of unheard of,” she said.

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Galloway says the partnership has been a game-changer.

“With Boyle Street coming in and that connection forming … our conversation can go more from ‘hey, I’m sorry you’re going through this, but you can’t be in the mall exhibiting this behaviour’ to … ‘let me connect you to Brenna from Boyle Street and she’ll connect you with a person at Boyle Street. You have an appointment in half an hour, here are the directions to get there,’” he said.

Gavel described homeless people entering the mall as a “survival technique.”

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“People trying to stay warm, people trying to find food, washroom facilities.”

“The mall is an open space to come in and you don’t have to pay to come in here, but that also comes with challenges. You’re seeing people who are in the mall who aren’t being directed to the appropriate services,” she said.

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The mall has had to raise security budgets and pay to repair vandalism, something Kirk calls unsustainable. With the Boyle Street team there to help move people out of the mall and into supports, he hopes there will be long-term improvements to the social disorder.

“This is planting a seed today for a flower tomorrow, but we are seeing some immediate results from that.”

“We’re not a big bad shopping centre. We are doing what we can to be part of that community, be part of that solution and to be respectful and empathetic to the people that are around us,” said Kirk.

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