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Welcoming Streets Steward builds bridges in downtown Kingston

Josh Morgan is the new “Welcoming Streets Steward” in downtown Kingston. But what exactly is his job? 

In its most basic sense, as Morgan sees it, his job is bridging the gap between people’s negative preconceived ideas and reality to create a more welcoming and safe downtown atmosphere for everyone.

As a Welcoming Streets Steward, Morgan is assisting and building relationships with individuals experiencing mental health or addiction challenges, while connecting them to available local services and supports.

Recently, the employees of a downtown store had a tense incident with a person experiencing a mental health crisis and called Morgan for help. But by the time he arrived, the situation had resolved itself. 

“They were treating that individual with respect. They approached the individual in a caring way and just made conversation,” he explained, saying that human connection is, above all, what is needed when people become marginalized because of mental health problems, addictions, and homelessness.

So that is the first part of his job: making sure that negative preconceptions are shattered and people are treated respectfully and compassionately. “The second component… is to connect not just people to services but services to people, as well,” he explained.  

Welcoming Streets was introduced as a pilot program in downtown Kingston in July 2023 to serve these two essential functions. The program is an initiative of the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area (BIA), in partnership with Addiction and Mental Health Services Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (AMHS-KFLA).

“Day to day right now, I’m doing probably about 50 or 60 per cent in street outreach,” Morgan said. 

“I’m in the downtown area with my backpack, seeking people out as much as possible and having conversations with as many people as possible about what they need for services and what I can connect them to.”

He said that, right now, he is introducing himself to businesses and marginalized people who frequent the downtown. 

“This is day 21… so [I am] just seeing what the issues are, what I should specifically address or prioritize,” Morgan explained, noting that he also brings and shares harm reduction supplies with him on his daily “beat.” 

“Right now, I have socks and [am] trying to find gloves and hats, that kind of thing, for keeping people safe as possible.”

Morgan, who grew up in the Kingston area, has been involved with numerous social service and harm reduction agencies over the past 10 years. Through his work as a justice youth worker at St. Lawrence Youth Association and as an overdose prevention support worker in the Consumption and Treatment Services site at the Integrated Care Hub (ICH) with Kingston Community Health Centres (KCHC), his insight into varying societal issues has allowed him to assist clients with their recovery process. 

One goal of the Welcoming Streets Steward position, he said, “is to lower the police’s volume of calls for non-police issues… [It’s] me dealing with the marginalized community and allowing them to connect to the services that they need to be connected to.” 

“For the business side of it,” he went on, “I am just being a support for the business owners and their staff. Not everyone’s expected to be a harm reduction or social service worker, but I think [it’s] just supporting them in dealing with [tough] situations and letting them know they’ve approached it correctly.” 

He hopes to be able to connect businesses to things that might be beneficial, such as naloxone training, or training on how to interact with marginalized communities.

Although Morgan cannot, because of confidentiality issues, give specific stories of how he has helped out in a crisis, he did provide a scenario. 

“A call might be made indicating that somebody’s come into a store and they’re [agitated]. They’re not committing any crimes; they’re not even really breaching any bylaws. But [from the business owner’s perspective], they are steering customers away from the store, and they’re not taking any direction from the staff or the business owner,” he offered as an example.

“So maybe I am called at that point,” Morgan continued, explaining he would then “try to connect the person to where they need to be… to be a kind of bridge… Maybe they’re not looking for services… Everybody has the right to refuse that. But just even to be there for them — because sometimes people just need to have that conversation, to be validated.”

Asked how he addresses the perception that his job is just to “clean up” the streets and sweep away the people store owners don’t like having around, Morgan said, “I actually had an instance yesterday [when someone said], ‘Oh, so you just sweep them along?’”

“No, no, no, absolutely not,” he emphasized. 

“I mean, everybody has the right to be where they are.”

He said people sometimes do think of it like “Somebody’s [panhandling] or something and [my job is to say] ‘OK, move along, move along.’… No. Where would you move somebody to? That’s not the way that we should be moving forward with this. The idea is to make the entire community safe for everyone.” 

“So,” he continued, “if that looks like me sitting there speaking to an individual, or just actively listening, being there for them, if that’s what that takes, then that’s what we do… until the point where they’re interested in accepting services if that’s what they would like. I see it as that.” 

Morgan talked about a level of fear that some privileged people have of the marginalized. 

“I think some people are afraid of physical altercations, some level of assault,” he explained. 

“Not that it’s not possible. It’s just that it is far less than what the situation is in reality. I’ve never been attacked at all working at ICH. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, [but] it’s very, very rare.”

Going forward, he shared, “I’d like to see people contact me when they have questions and real concerns — so it’ll just help me grow the kind of educational opportunities I could do.” 

The Welcoming Streets program is designed to address the needs of individuals who are precariously housed or experiencing homelessness, particularly those facing mental health and addiction challenges, according to Marijo Cuerrier, Executive Director of the BIA. 

“By deploying experienced responders to incidents involving vulnerable community members, the program helps minimize police intervention, supports the business community, and ensures that vulnerable individuals receive the appropriate care they need,” Cuerrier relayed.

According to a BIA news release, “At its core, the program represents a community-driven approach to addressing the complex issues surrounding homelessness and mental health. By prioritizing empathy and expert care, Welcoming Streets creates a safer, more inclusive environment for all. By working together and leveraging the strengths of different sectors, the program demonstrates the power of collective action in addressing pressing social issues and building a more compassionate, supportive community.”

“It has truly been an honour serving this community throughout my career,” Morgan observed. “Kingston is a great city, with the potential to continue to thrive in all the ways it has up to now. I am grateful to be in a position to assist it in furthering that growth.”

The Welcoming Streets Program is funded in part by the Ontario Homelessness Prevention Program. 

For more information on the program, visit the Welcoming Streets Initiative website.

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