StreetReach, safety officers, addiction, homelessness among issues brought up with justice minister

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen met with Thompson city council, members of city administration and Thompson and northern district RCMP members Dec. 11 to discuss provincially funded crime fighting and prevention initiatives including the development of a new StreetReach program in the city and the addiction of two police officers to the northern crime reduction team.

“Just a couple of weeks ago we announced over $2 million for Thompson for the StreetReach program,” said Cullen. “We’re certainly excited about that. I know the community and city council is very excited about the StreetReach program coming to Thompson. We’ve had it here as a pilot project and it worked quite effectively so what we’re looking at now is building the capacity within the community so that we have an ongoing StreetReach program here in the city of Thompson. We certainly have seen it being very effective in Winnipeg over the years and I think there’s certainly a need for it here in the city to alleviate some of the pressure on the RCMP in terms of their policing as well.”

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The province announced Nov. 19 that it is providing $2.1 million over three years to re-establish a StreetReach program in Thompson. 

Modelled after the Dallas, Texas police department’s high-risk victims unit, StreetReach’s main goals are to stop children and youth from running away from home, prevent future sexual abuse and exploitation, redirect runaway children to prevent them from being victimized and intervening to stop those who exploit young, high-risk victims. 

Established in 2009, with a team in Winnipeg as well as one in Thompson, which was later discontinued, StreetReach brings together law enforcement, child welfare and non-governmental organizations to help prevent children from being victimized and drawn into the sex trade.

Funding to re-establish the Thompson StreetReach team will include one-time costs of $124,000 plus $225,000 this year, as well as $900,000 in each of the next two years. 

The first step in creating the new Thompson StreetReach team will be community consultations to create partnerships and working to integrate existing mobile crisis and addiction programs, including mental health, addictions and spiritual/elder supports.

Another topic for discussion was Thompson community safety officer (CSO) program, which had eight full-time officers when it was launched as a pilot project under the NDP government in 2015, with Thompson only responsible for half of the program’s annual costs. As the province has shouldered less of the financial burden, the city has reduced the number of CSOs on the street and right now there are only three out of the four that were budgeted for because one is on parental leave until February.

We also talked about the CSO program and how it was beneficial to the RCMP and that with some of cutbacks in our budget that it’s sort of a constraint that we have,” said Mayor Colleen Smook.

“Every time I come we have a discussion about community safety officers,” said Cullen, who made no mention of any forthcoming funding for CSOs. “Certainly they have proven beneficial. I have been contacted by a lot of other communities throughout the province in terms of community safety officers and I certainly think there’s a role for them to play and that will be a decision that individual jurisdictions can decide, if they want to make that investment in community safety officers. We have similar challenges with budget just as the City of Thompson has challenges with their budget as well. We’re certainly willing to work with them in terms of what policing looks like in Manitoba.”

Cullen also said that, in addition to previously announced renovations for the Thompson court office, the government is expanding bail hearings from three days a week to five in the new year to help reduce incidents of Northern Manitobans being held in custody for weeks before their bail application is even heard.

Smook said the province has offered to provide facilitators to help the city and other community organizations working on strategies to combat homelessness to move those strategies from ideas to action.

“We talked abut the mini Main Street North project which would be further help with addictions,” she said. “We talked about utilizing some of the facilities we have here like Hope North and the AFM [Addictions Foundation of Manitoba]. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we’ve just got to work better together and more collaboration.”

The province understand the challenges facing Thompson as it deals with a high crime rate.

“Clearly Thompson is the hub of the north but it ends up being the hub of the north for some of the criminal activity as well,” said the justice minister. “We recognize that’s a challenge. Our government recently released a policing and public safety strategy and one of the eight elements of that strategy deals with … communities with high rates of criminal activity and violence and clearly Thompson falls into that category. We’re making specific investments and paying quite a bit of attention to the community and seeing where we can help address criminal activity.”

Solutions to crime and some of the other social problems that contribute to it, like addictions and homelessness, are going to require more than just the city and province working together, says the mayor.

“This has to be a completely northern partnership in order for it to work,” Smook says. “We have to work with MKO, KTC [Keewatin Tribal Council] and MMF [Manitoba Metis Federation] to get the outlying communities involved so they have the supports they need. Even if somebody wants to go home from the downtown right now, there’s really nothing in their community for resources, be it housing, mental health, counselling. There’s nothing for them to go home to and get help. Not that they’re getting help in Thompson but I guess it’s a better place to hang out.”

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