Saturday, 9 January 2016

Reflections on Yesterday's Public Meeting and the Project - JHS, The Works - Toronto Police

Over 100 people came out for yesterday's meeting about police and their involvement with Toronto Public Health - The Works and the John Howard Society. This project was developed in a 3 week period without proper consultation with people who use drugs or any consultations with agencies that would be affected by plain clothes /undercover police and "outreach" workers doing outreach to communities in 11, 12 , 13 and 14 divisions. A project like this should have gone through intense and proper consultation before applying or finding they shouldn't apply for the $99,000 they received for it. At the same time many harm reduction programs in this city are operating on breadcrumbs they receive from the Toronto Urban Health Fund - $10,000 here, $30,000 there, the police and this partnership received $99,000. Imagine what we could do with that much money? That much money could pay for over 5,000 hours at $18/hr for harm reduction workers with lived experienced to be doing outreach and connecting peer to peer. This funding does not include the officers salaries and what we heard yesterday was that many of these officers received overtime for participating in this project. We have seen phenomenal cuts in this city especially to homeless prevention programs, cuts to winter survival funds, cuts to outreach , cuts to shelters and other programs and at the same time the only budget never cut is that of Toronto Police which now sits at $1 billion annually.

In my over a decade of experience of working and  being incredibly active in Harm Reduction here in Toronto, I have never heard us collectively say we need to work with the police in projects like these. It is actually the opposite. Many workers are from criminalized communities that are targeted by the police. The service users who access our organizations are subjected to ongoing harassment and targeting by the police from ticketing, to carding, to arresting, to brutality. We see our organizations as demilitarized spaces, sanctuaries, safe spaces where police cannot enter, a well recognized condition of our relationship with police.

The funding for this project came about through two things. The targeting of a methadone clinic by an offensive, right wing City Councilor Caeser Palacio who had no idea the clinic of 25 years even existed in his ward but one day found out and mustered up hatred and panic about the clinic, conflating a situation that didn't exist and further stigmatizing the people who access the clinic which no one paid any notice too. The second event that contributed to this project being actualized was the Cornerstone Shelter at Oakwood and Vaughan and the NIMBY neighbours and the BIA who also mustered up a false narrative about homeless people and tried to stop the shelter from moving the all of a few blocks. Opposition to these NIMBY neighbours from people who support the shelter was quickly organized and the shelter saved. Consultation with the BIA and what I imagine to be residents associations and the police helped to fuel this pilot project which the John Howard Society and Toronto Public Health - The Works who then became a part of. A snitch line - basically, for neighbours to call if they see someone pan handling, homeless, using substances - a social cleansing project - gentrification. "The Street Outreach Project"- a 6 month pilot project currently under way . This project was not widely announced to the broader harm reduction community and we only heard about it when interactions on the street began.

Majority of people in attendance at yesterday's meeting were in opposition to this project. Harm Reduction workers many of them drug users spoke up, out and against the project and articulated consistently the harms and issues this project is creating. And so a conversation - a back and forth continued through out the meeting. I sat across from an officer who was a part of arresting me and 30 other people at an OCAP demo over shelters all of two years ago. The irony not lost on me that "this person wants to be part of an outreach project" . Or the cop that turned to me from 14 division and told me point blank that I needed to work on changing the perception on the street to which I immediately responded like you're doing, in regards to the shooting death and murder of Sammy Yatim killed by your fellow officer in your division?

I walked away from this meeting so heart broken. We never invited the police to collaborate with us. We are not collaborators. We have been responding to the needs of communities - drug using communities for decades. We don't need police any where near the work we do. We don't need to be pushing projects to fund the police to have naloxone when thousands of the real first responders - drug users and the family and friends of people who use opioids should be first to get naloxone. We actually need the police to not show up at an overdose so that people feel safe to call EMS. As it stands now many people continue to die from overdose death from the very real fear of calling the police. And we should certainly not be playing a role in social cleansing or gentrifcation. Why would we, we'd be social cleansing ourselves out of our own workplaces and neighbourhoods. But this is what this project actually is. A tool for "social order".

What was the bravest thing I was witness to yesterday was my fellow workers speaking up one after another stating "I am a drug user, I am opposed to this project and heres why..." saying this over and over to a panel of police sympathizers and police. That's a hard thing to do.

The reaction especially from John Howard Society was to continuously brush aside concerns and the very real examples of harms and distrust this is creating. They constantly said they are going to continue and not once fully acknowledged what people in the room were saying in a meaningful way. This is incredibly problematic. The harms and distrust cannot be measured and might take years for us to gain back. An evaluative component is not a part of this "Pilot Project", which there is no excuse for given the nature of this project and the funding they have received.

At the end of the day these organizations need to ask themselves which relationship is more important to them, the one with the Toronto Police or with People Who Use Drugs? I at the very least hope that the Works who contracts out to the 50 agencies in this city handing out harm reduction supplies stops their involvement with the police and gets back to being in solidarity with the rest of us. We know not all staff inside the organization are supportive to this project and to them I am thankful. 

I have little hope for JHS who have demonstrated a real lack of understanding yesterday in to the problematic role they are playing. If you live and or work in 13 division and you see your new neighbours - cause JHS only just moved there recently  - doing outreach be aware they are doing this with plain clothes officers. 

These organizations and everyone else can not negate the very real negative role police play in the lives of people who use drugs - especially in the lives of people on the street, people from racialized and indigenous communities. Like my fellow worker Peter so eloquently stated at the meeting this project and the ways in which police target the "low hanging fruit" people using drugs who are on the streets is class war. And we as workers in harm reduction do not want to engage in this. This project needs to end. #nocopsonoutreach #nocollaborating


  1. As always Zoe, you are right on the money. Thanks for all of the great work that you do.
    Adam Chalcraft.

  2. Zoe, thank you for your eloquence on the subject. I had to kick myself out of the meeting before I really started screaming.

  3. Some comments regarding your article above;
    1) I'm unsure as to why outraech workers are in parentheses? I am one of the outreach workers on this project and between the two of us we have a combined experience at The Works of 25 years. I beleive that qualifies me as an outreach worker. With respect to lived experience the two outreach workers on the project have adequate experience, one officer has a social work background and worked for Child Find Canada, and the other was a Child and Youth Wkr before joining the police.
    2) the police consulted with the Works, an organization that has been at the forefront of Harm Reduction for 25 years. With 3 weeks to put the proposal together it would seem reasonable for the police to consult with the organization that has been doing this work for 25 years. It was no slight to other organizations, and halfway through project the police met to discuss any concerns which in my mind is respectful to the process they didnt have to.
    3) The grants were openly discussed. The monies were only available to the TPS at the time and they took advantage of it as any other organization such as a CHC would take advantage of monies available tonthem
    4) To say that the pooice have never worked collectively with outreach is just plain wrong. Perhaps the writer may wish to educate herself on the Bad Date Coalition and the Bad Date book wihch is a joint effort between clients and police that I know does phenomenal work no one would begrudge. Or the work of the police in Vanvouver which assists clients to get to Safe Injection Sites for safety of users.
    5) To eqate calling this program as calling a snitch line would be laughable if it wasn't so dangerous. To put such an unecessary fear into users heads may in fact prevent them from calling The Works and cause needless suffeing based on your over the top hyperbole. Seriously! Social Cleansing!!!
    The calls I have personally responded to have been addiction related, suicidal calls, violence against street workers, and other noble work that I am proud of. If people would ask us what we are doing instead of jumping to over the top judgemntal conclusions based on ignorance it may actually help clients.

    I've been in social work for 25 years and at The Works forr 10 years. I have never been so dismayed or disheartened at such a negative attitude from my colleagues. I was told on day one of Harm Reduction to be non-judgemental and accept people where they at. I have never seen so much unecessary judgement, false accusations, pettiness and unwillingness to build bridges where bridges are desperately needed.

    I am proud of the officers I work with and they have shown an openess and willingness to work with us that has been met with open hostilty and judgement. I put my reputation on the line that these are good, caring, compassionate officers who are trying to find a way to make a difference that is non-enforcemnt. I just wish my colleagues could be as positive.

    1. I put outreach in quotations as it is unclear whether the works actually goes out on "outreach" or is just responding to calls. And also when I say lived experience I am not talking about social work experience but the experience of using drugs, or the experience of being homeless, or the experience of being incarcerated etc.

      It's not about being a slight to other organizations. It's about recognizing we don't work in silos and the importance of consulting with community partners especially when you are going in to places you don't normally go in to is a very good idea. And especially consulting meaningfully with people who use drugs. It just makes sense.

      No one needs to take this money. Its from proceeds to crime and billed as crime prevention. We know that the folks who access services engage in "illegal" activity and so it seems a bit of a hypocrisy to take this kind of funding. The works and john howard are way more resourced then most of their partner agencies.

      The Bad Date Coalition does not do utreach with the police and never has. The bad date book are not reports to the police but a way for sex workers to report incidents without going to the police who they fear and don't trust. If you are referring to the sex crimes unit. That unit no longer is focused on sex workers but on human trafficking and I went to the consultations of the establishment of the unit and they were heated and challenging and many before the project was underway. Vancouver police have worked decades with the downtown east communities and organizations. A very different relationship then the one we have here. and one quite frankly that needs a much broader discussion as to what positive roles the police can play that does little harm to the communities of people using drugs.

      To respond to the work - people are doing this work everyday. There's no need for police to be responding. It's still not appropriate and you could be responding to these with your other outreach partner. what is the argument for having cops? there really isn't one. They're way to expensive and as a tax payer alone and someone impacted by rising costs while police budget continues to climb and bankrupt the city this is certainly not a cost savings measure.

      The tenant of harm reduction - being non judgmental isn't about workers who have power over it's in regards to people who use drugs. I would welcome you to read the Vancouver Declaration "Nothing About Us, Without Us". I would listen to the concerns that were raised from your colleagues, many of them people who use drugs. I find it troubling that you do not acknowledge the very negative role police play in peoples lives. Those experiences will never be brushed aside because they aren't your experiences and because you are pro police and because you are pro working with them. You need to listen to those negative experiences if you don't understand them then I don't know how you consider yourself a harm reduction worker, too be honest but i'd like to think you do after your ten years at the works?

  4. Thanks for your reflections, Zoe (both in your first post and in your response above).

    This project is so messed up and it's so valuable (to me - I would assume to many others on the periphery of this issue) that all of this info can be shared.

    Sending love and solidarity.

  5. Well said Zoey. Thanking the universe for people like yourself, brave, caring, committed.