Safety host program first launched for downtown Winnipeg library grows to meet demand in other spaces
Landa Rispler was working at the Millennium Library as a community safety host when a man came into the facility needing help getting medical care.
Rispler, who has training to help people who are in crisis, recalled that when efforts to find a ride for the man proved unsuccessful, she gave him detailed instructions on how to get the care he needed. When she saw him again a few days later, he thanked her for checking on him.
“When I have a rapport with someone, it makes me feel really good,” Rispler said.
A growing number of people like Rispler are now working in this position and trying to change the face of security in Winnipeg. Rispler was part of the first group that graduated from the community safety host training program last year.
Created by the inner-city advocacy group Fearless R2W and the social enterprise Persons Community Solutions, the program started as a pilot project to train certified security guards with additional skills in de-escalation and trauma-informed care.
“I have a few people that actually come just to say hi, because they like my vibes, I guess,” she said.
Response to security
The program launched in reaction to increased security measures introduced at the Millennium Library in 2019, including metal detectors and bag searches, which some people considered too strict.
After public blowback forced the City of Winnipeg to reverse course, the community safety host program developed as a way of providing an extra level of security with a more human face.
“If I see someone that’s getting a little escalated or loud yelling, swearing … I try to respond before the security does and I just, kind of, talk them through it,” Rispler said.
The fatal stabbing of a man at the Millennium Library on Dec. 11, 2022, led the city to step up security once again, with metal detectors and bag checks at the entrance, and police officers stationed just inside the gate.
It also led the city to increase the number of community safety hosts working at the Millennium Library from one to two.
Wearing grey polo shirts and equipped with snacks and information on how to access services, community safety hosts originally started with three people patrolling the St. John’s and St. Boniface libraries. The program has now grown to employ 21 people.
“Probably we got to that number a lot sooner than we had really planned, with recent events in the city and a lot of demand from the community to see safety hosts in more spaces,” said Daniel Waycik, program manager with Persons Community Solutions.
“From the community perspective, what happened at the Millennium Library is a real problem that exists every day in Winnipeg.”
Supports for safety hosts
Those safety hosts now divide their time between the downtown Millennium Library, the downtown ACCESS clinic and Just a Warm Sleep’s pop-up shelter in Osborne Village.
Many of the people working as safety hosts have similar life experiences as the people they are helping.
Mary Burton, co-founder of Fearless R2W, says the program works with the safety hosts to make sure they have services they need, including housing and mental health supports.
“Our employees, because they have a lot of barriers, and a lot of them are youth who have aged out of care, we need to have those wrap-around services … in place for them before they get on the job,” she said.
KB Greenhill, a mentor with the program, fills out part of that support network for the safety hosts.
“At the moment, because of all the growth that we’ve been experiencing, yes, it’s been a lot,” she said.
“It just expresses the need for this kind of work to know that someone’s out there working, you know, around the clock.”
The program was initially funded entirely by grants. Now three-quarters of its funding comes from revenue from contracts, and it aims to soon be fully self-sustaining, Waycik said.
Two groups of safety hosts have gone through the training, and there are plans for a third.
While the safety hosts have been working exclusively at the Millennium Library since it re-opened in January, Burton hopes to see them eventually return to St. John’s and St. Boniface libraries.
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