Push is on for more outreach workers in downtown Windsor

A Windsor Family Services outreach worker strolls the streets of Windsor looking for vulnerable people to assist on Feb. 19, 2021. (Rich Garton / CTV Windsor)

After several years of outreach workers matching vulnerable people with services, a city councillor is asking his council colleagues to fund two additional outreach positions on budget day.

“This year it was one of the first things I looked for when I opened the budget and I couldn’t find it at all,” says Ward 3 rep Rino Bortolin.

There are currently four outreach workers in Windsor: one funded by the city, two funded by the province and another, through Ontario Works.

Bortolin is planning to put forward a motion to fund two additional outreach worker positions through the budget stabilization reserve at a cost of roughly $140,000, during the city’s Feb. 22 budget meeting.

Since deploying the first outreach worker seven years ago, Joyce Zuk of Family Services Windsor-Essex says they have matched many of Windsor’s homeless population with shelter, mental health services and even opioid-related interventions.

“One of the best ways that we can drive folks to existing services and get them to avail themselves of shelter is to meet them where they’re at and that’s out on the city streets,” Zuk says.

These workers — who operate under the Family Services Windsor-Essex organization — often respond to calls alongside Windsor police.

“It’s something we utilize on a daily basis,” says Windsor police deputy chief Jason Bellaire. He says police respond to many such calls where there is no criminality, and when it’s safe to do so, an outreach worker may be more appropriate.

“They do what they can to connect people to what they need,” Bellaire says. “They will diagnose better, oftentimes, than a police officer will what specific support network needs to be put in place for these individuals’ needs.”

The work often happens during the day, leaving many in distress without access to outreach support when they need it most.

“This can’t be a 9-5 Monday through Friday job. It has to be seven days a week and into the evenings if we want to continue being a meaningful support to the Windsor Police Service,” says Zuk.

Zuk adds as long as Windsor isn’t able to properly house its homeless population, these services will be especially necessary.

Coun. Bortolin believes it’s money well spent to help effectively deal with chronic homelessness, opioid addictions, and mental health issues that residents typically associate with the downtown.

Bortolin notes businesses often call the outreach team directly and get very quick results with the help of these workers, who have formed relationships with much of the city’s vulnerable population.

“These are the small steps we need to take to make sure we’re doing it right,” he says.

“If you let your foot off the gas, you’re going to lose ground here and that’s what we can’t afford to do.”