Downtown Yonge’s collaborative approach to community engagement

“This (service) is something that should be provided at every single BIA in the city,” says Larsen. “If you don't have a stable community that is resourced and healthy and welcoming, you're never going to have a successful economy… it goes hand-in-hand.”

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Post by Andrew Seale  Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Post by Andrew Seale

Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Jan Krouzil is all toothy grin, pausing to chat with the cluster of bicycle police and uniformed officers outside of Ed Mirvish Theatre, a block from Yonge and Dundas Square. He says something, the officer he’s talking to laughs, they fist bump, then Krouzil’s eyes narrow and he ducks into the Tim Hortons next door, still wearing the same smile.

He comes out and shakes his head, no luck. There have been reports of a disturbed individual, he explains, a regular in the neighbourhood. They’ve left the Tim Hortons but he knows where to go, starting in the direction of the Shoppers Drug Mart up the road.

This is how Krouzil’s days look: ping-ponging between uniformed officers, business owners, and the community in the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area. Krouzil heads up the Community Engagement Team – a joint effort between the Downtown Yonge BIA and Margaret's housing and community support services. The project was established partly with a grant from the Toronto BIA Office Innovation Fund.

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“What we're facing on the streets is a total lack of adequate services for folks experiencing mental health, addiction challenges, chronic homelessness, poverty, etc…” says Krouzil. “The shelters are full, the drop-ins are full, the respites are full, the out-of-the-colds are full, the pre-fabricated structures are delayed – a lot of folks out on the street are using places like Tim Hortons, McDonald's.”

And these private businesses are going to see more and more people coming in to escape from the cold and use the washroom. “Some are paying customers, buying a cup of coffee at Tim Hortons,” he explains. “But they’re staying there for three or four hours because they have nowhere else to go.”

For the businesses and the people working in these chains (often teenagers or students), there’s no training for de-escalating the sort of situation someone high on drugs or intoxicated and grappling with mental illness could potentially create.

The lack of support, or even the bare minimum – a place to go – is having a profound impact on the Downtown Yonge area encompassing places like 10 Dundas, the Eaton Centre and Yonge and Dundas square, a major economic hub for tourism, restaurants, and shopping.

To oversimplify, says Pauline Larsen, senior economic development manager at the Downtown Yonge BIA and one of the masterminds behind the CET program, business is only successful if people want to shop at them. And feeling safe is a critical part of that.

“One of the things we've found is people weren't working together to solve it,” she says. Outreach wouldn't work with police and business, residents were getting fed up, and people weren't feeling comfortable in the area at night. “Our view was the only way to resolve this is to start to collaborate.”

A pilot in 2016 showed businesses weren’t actually reporting incidents of feeling unsafe, so the BIA pulled together a flowchart to ensure business owners and community members knew how (and when) to report what was happening to police. They also created the Downtown Toronto Drop-In Resource, a pamphlet and map identifying the tools available for the vulnerable in the area. It’s something employees can use to help steer individuals needing help in the right direction, says Larsen.

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As a precursor to the CET, they coupled together elders from First Nations communities with uniformed officers to canvass the community and offer support to chronically street-involved individuals.

In 2018, they received the BIA Innovation Grant to support the creation of the Community Engagement Team in partnership with Margaret’s. “The original funding proposal we put in contributed about half of the three-month pilot project for Jan and his team,” says Larsen. “We're in phase two.”

In addition to Krouzil, two other team members trained in de-escalation and mental health, are on call seven days a week from 10 am to 7 pm, as the first response for business owners. The team has responded to close to 80 calls, many from smaller, street-front independent businesses that don’t have access to the security teams like the larger shopping centres. “Their response time is about five minutes,” she adds, compared to waiting for six to seven hours for police.

Both Krouzil and Larsen suspect the success will ripple out. Krouzil unfolds a hand-drawn map detailing his “master plan” to grow beyond the Downtown Yonge BIA. It’s a patchwork of outreach teams working together to ensure no one is falling through the cracks.

“This (service) is something that should be provided at every single BIA in the city,” says Larsen. “If you don't have a stable community that is resourced and healthy and welcoming, you're never going to have a successful economy… it goes hand-in-hand.”

David Hessels