It's 3 a.m. when a patrol officer comes across a 16-year-old girl sleeping underneath the SkyTrain tracks in Surrey, B.C. She's huddled in a tent with two homeless men in their 40s. The young girl has mental health and addiction problems, hasn't been to school in months, and — she's pregnant.
The usual police response would be to refer the girl to local social workers. But now, Surrey RCMP have kick-started a new intervention program to better handle calls relating to social issues in the downtown core.
The Surrey Mobilization and Resiliency Table (SMART) doesn't wait for incidents to happen. The proactive program targets unstable individuals to prevent the need for an emergency response down the line.
The program connects representatives from law enforcement, corrections, housing, health, social services, income assistance and education to help at-risk residents get the support they need to stay safe and out of trouble.
"It's about having all the services and resources you might need sitting at that table so they can be mobilized in a speedy way," says Morten Bisgaard, a manager at the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, and a co-chair of SMART. "These are cases where serious harm could come to an individual unless we respond very quickly."
In 2014, over 60 per cent of the Surrey detachment's calls for service dealt with social issues such as substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and mental health. Police officers, often untrained to deal with these issues, could only refer these residents to various social services.
But in 2015, the RCMP enlisted the help of trained service professionals from all areas of social care in Surrey to create SMART. The goal is to intercept the highest-risk people — those in dire need of healthcare, income or basic human necessities — and address their problems before they become involved with police or end up in a hospital.
Every Tuesday morning, members of the SMART team sit down and discuss high-risk cases their agencies can't handle alone.
"If we want to save lives, we have to talk about these people together," says Insp. Ghalib Bhayani, a community support and safety officer in Surrey. "With SMART, when you have that 16-year-old girl's case presented to the table, four or five hands go up and take part ownership of her well-being."
After SMART undertakes a case, members from the relevant agencies go out into Surrey to track down the at-risk target. An intervention — including finding the person and offering them resources — takes place within 48 hours.
"A lot of people that come to this table would be missed otherwise," says Bisgaard. "They're the type of people that, if we weren't able to help them, they'd end up dead or seriously injured."
Creating a network
SMART is built around the Hub model — a collaborative preventative approach to reducing crime. Since it began in Prince Albert, Sask. in 2011, the Hub model has expanded to 55 communities across Canada, with Surrey being the most recent.
So far, SMART has successfully intervened and closed more than 70 cases. Jodi Sturge, Deputy Executive Director of Lookout Emergency Aid Society which provides housing to low-income residents, says SMART is a good way to exchange information that otherwise wouldn't be shared.
"We brought one client to the table, and when it came time to find them, they were quite hidden and homeless. When we brought police to where they were living, the RCMP were unaware of the location, and they were shocked that people were staying there," she says. "We gained a better understanding of each others' area of expertise."
Sturge says SMART also helps the RCMP look at things from a support point of view, rather than a criminal justice perspective.
"Our work is a lot of crisis intervention, and this is an approach we've never had before," says Sturge. "It lets the community know that we're there."
Surrey is already planning to expand SMART beyond the downtown-core neighbourhood to reach more residents.
As for the 16-year-old girl sleeping under the SkyTrain, Bhayani says SMART is the first step to making sure she's safe, and getting her life back on track.
"We'll offer her every opportunity — housing, education and healthcare, including prenatal, to make her and her baby succeed in life."
October 3, 2016
By Amelia Thatcher