Opinion: The trouble with the STM's new 'safety ambassadors'

We question how they can balance the concerns of commuters with the needs of the unhoused in the Montreal métro.

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Among the crowds at métro stations, you may have recently noted several people wearing distinctive blue shirts. Neither special constables nor métro operators, these individuals are known as “safety ambassadors.”

They’re part of a Société de transport de Montréal (STM) program launched on Jan. 25. Trained to provide customer assistance and relay safety issues to security, the safety ambassadors aim to address the growing unease of station-users. But exactly who among the station-users are they prioritizing?

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As students in the master of science in public health program at McGill University, we are concerned the STM’s new safety efforts will create further harm to unhoused station-users during a housing and opioid crisis.

A 2021 report found that nearly 40 per cent of tickets issued in recent years by STM special constables were to unhoused people. Not only does ticketing discourage the existence of unhoused people in and around the stations, but the financial penalties sink these groups further into poverty.

By adding more eyes and ears to métro stations, we will inevitably see an increase in interactions between vulnerable people and security personnel. Unlike police, these safety ambassadors cannot issue tickets and are trained to “check in” with vulnerable people. However, they will call for police support if the situation is beyond their capacity. Even if most check-ins do not end with police intervention, every additional interaction that leads to ticketing or arrest is another opportunity for harm.

These safety ambassadors are only one element in the STM’s approach. They’ve also hired social workers to respond to specific crises in collaboration with the ambassadors and special constables. While we welcome the involvement of social workers, these mixed squads adhere to the same objective of protecting fare revenue and the interests of métro users. Recent research shows that these mixed squads interfere with the operations of street outreach groups not affiliated with the STM.

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Once unhoused individuals have been exposed to law enforcement in support settings, it becomes a challenge to separate the feeling of being watched from the feeling of being helped. As a result, these community organizations noted a drop in trust with their staff and reduced engagement in their services.

Finally, we question how the safety ambassadors can balance the concerns of commuters with the needs of the unhoused. Ideally, individuals who are unhoused will seek help through a shelter where permanent housing, counselling and support are provided. Instead, many shelters are resource-strapped and must turn people away, particularly in the winter months. Without a warm, safe space to rest, the métro remains the only place for refuge.

What happens if a commuter complains to safety ambassadors about a person using drugs in the station? Based on the program’s description, these ambassadors can direct people to social support services. But where else can they be referred to beyond what already exists and is deemed over-capacitated or unsafe?

With all other options exhausted, these individuals will likely be directed to leave the station.

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The STM described its plan as a necessary tool for adapting to the social realities brought on by the pandemic. However, what is needed are solutions, not adaptation. If the STM is invested in improving métro safety, it should take action to improve the welfare of the most at-risk station-users. It should evaluate the impact of the new program on perceptions of safety — not just for commuters, but for those who are using the station as shelter.

Beyond the STM, resources should be funnelled back into the community to invest in safe, stable and permanent housing and addictions care to reduce the number of vulnerable people forced to rest in métro stations. Until we prioritize the needs of these marginalized communities, we will never achieve safety in the stations.

Clare McGall, Danielle Duncan, Valerie Jeanneret and Holly Arscott are master of science in public health (MScPH) students at McGill University.

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