When two teenage girls were left stranded at Lester B. Pearson International Airport last year, they did not know where to turn. The Canadian teens were heading to Toronto to start a new life but their caretaker never arrived.
When airport authorities became aware of the girls’ predicament, they called Toronto Police 23 Division, who contacted Albion Neighbourhood Services executive director Lisa Kostakis.
“Within two days, my staff had acquired a one-bedroom basement dwelling for them with a stocked refrigerator,” the social worker recalled. “Before the week ended, they were registered in school and they had bank accounts.”
The girls were beneficiaries of a collaborative risk-driven approach to community safety and well-being established in the city four years ago.
Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services (FOCUS) is an innovative approach led by Toronto Police, the City of Toronto and United Way Toronto & York Region, that aims to reduce crime and victimization and improve community resiliency and well-being.
The model brings together the most appropriate community agencies at a weekly situation-table model to provide a targeted, wrap-around approach to the most vulnerable individuals, families and places that are experiencing heightened levels of risk in a specific geographic location.
FOCUS groups include Rexdale in 23 Division, which was the first to be launched in January 2013, along with North Scarborough (42 Division), Downtown East (51 Division) and Downtown West (14 Division) that were all set up last year.
The weekly meetings bring police, health and housing social workers, as well as legal experts and school board representatives, to review cases put before them to assess how they can help.
“It’s because of this initiative that those two young girls were placed in a very safe environment,” said Kostakis. “Without the referral to us, Children’s Aid Society might have become involved. They could have fallen off the grid and landed somewhere on the street if the police didn’t become involved right away.
“The first point of contact is the police because people aren’t aware of agencies and services in our communities. We have a fantastic relationship with 23 Division. Officers there have our business cards and know where we are located. This is about trying to nip something right at the beginning and then making a referral.”
Sergeant Brian Smith, a FOCUS situation table co-ordinator, provided another example of how the initiative benefits the most vulnerable in the community.
“There was a death in our Division a few months ago and we realized that the deceased was the breadwinner in the home where the mother and brother, who suffered from severe mental health issues, were left behind,” he said. “They were incapable of going out and buying groceries or seeking jobs. The table, with about 20 to 25 agencies, immediately became involved and was able to buy them groceries and connect them to community resources like a local church. Everybody rallied around that family in need.”
A Service member since 1990, Smith – who is attached to the Divisional Policing Support Unit -- emphasized that FOCUS Toronto isn’t a police-led initiative.
“We are equal partners and that was very important from the start,” he noted. “We don’t have the tools to deal with the challenges that members of our society face, like addictions, mental health issues and joblessness. This is an opportunity for our frontline officers to make referrals to deal with some of the issues and risk factors.”
At a recent FOCUS appreciation event at the Police College attended by nearly 150 representatives from Toronto Police, the City of Toronto, United Way Toronto and other agencies, Deputy Chief Mike Federico praised the initiative.
“Policing has often been seen as a separate pillar of our community response to public safety,” he said. “Let me reassure you that the police don’t think of ourselves as separate and distinct from our community partners. It is sometimes difficult to demonstrate that we are actually engaged in collaboration at the very frontline grassroots and, so in many respects, FOCUS allows us to prove that policing, at least in Canada and particularly in Toronto. FOCUS is sincerely interested in building community partnerships. I am so proud of FOCUS because it is able to demonstrate very dramatically this collaboration and you deserve the credit for being part of this phenomenon.”
Federico, who also chairs the non-profit Vitanova Foundation, which serves people struggling with addictions, said there are practical benefits associated with collaboration.
“We struggle as a society in maintaining and sustaining our community investments,” he added. “Policing leaders, particularly our Chief Mark Saunders, recognizes that social investments are a necessary component to securing a safe community. So, by way of our collaboration, there are some practical benefits as agencies struggle to sustain themselves. By partnering with the police as an institution, we could make cases for funding or for access on the basis of a joint community safety and public health approach to livability and wellness in our community. I encourage you to take advantage of that association.”
Since its inception, FOCUS Rexdale – which includes 24 responding agencies including 23 Division – has intervened in, or resolved, 478 cases. Launched in April last year, FOCUS North Scarborough has resolved or being involved with 67 situations while FOCUS Downtown West and East, launched last October, have dealt with or resolved 25 cases each.