Have you ever had the feeling that things “aren’t just quite right” – that you could be doing things differently and getting better results? Have you ever experienced a convergence of events that made you realize things needed to change? This is a story about these very experiences – and how critical reflection, courageous action, and linkages between a large business and community-based mental health and addictions agencies has generated ground breaking changes in downtown Edmonton.

Sometimes an epiphany shatters our vision of what is right and doable. At Edmonton City Centre, “security” means something entirely different today than it did a few short years ago. Arrests of “trespassers” are down. Inclusion, respect, a listening ear, kind words, linkages to services, and donations of coffee, food and clothing to those who could be considered “vulnerable” are up. What’s happening at Edmonton City Centre has the potential to transform hundreds, if not thousands of lives, yet the “technology” is simple and something anyone can provide: respect, compassion and an understanding of how trauma can impact our lives.

A moment of insight made Pam Brown, Safety and Security Manager for Oxford Properties at Edmonton City Centre, realize that people seeking shelter and safety in the mall shouldn’t be treated with scorn and disdain, nor should they be arrested and criminalized. Rather, they should be seen, heard and respected as valued customers of the mall and part of the social fabric of the downtown community. And, as part of that community, Edmonton City Centre should be a supportive environment for all its members, including those navigating the challenges of serious mental illness and/or addiction, homelessness, and poverty.

Pam Brown, Safety & Security Manager, and Sean Kirk, General Manager, Oxford Properties Group, Edmonton City Centre

Pam Brown, Safety & Security Manager, and Sean Kirk, General Manager, Oxford Properties Group, Edmonton City Centre

Following that insight, Oxford Properties shifted from a policing and enforcement model of mall security to a compassion- and trauma-informed approach. In the first year of doing so, arrests in the mall went from 800 in a year, to 30. Instead of landing in court or jail, vulnerable people are now being seen, heard, respected, included and connected to addiction, mental health and social services. They know that City Centre’s security agents are there to support them, not to make their lives more difficult. Brown’s spark of insight yielded an innovative approach that is compassionate and trauma informed and that has exponentially expanded the reach of traditional addiction and mental health services. This approach has created informal links to addiction, mental health and social services, and, in and of itself, promotes mental health and wellbeing. All of this is delivered in a shopping mall – a non-traditional setting – by informed lay persons using minimal resources within existing structures, and through business – agency partnerships.

Oxford Properties Group owns and operates Edmonton City Centre and some 50 million square feet of real estate in Canada, including numerous shopping malls in Alberta. More than 1.5 million people work in, shop at, live in or visit one of Oxford’s properties around the world, every day.

Brown’s advice? This is something anyone can do: “Just take the first step and see what happens. What’s the worst that could go wrong? And taking that step gives others permission to do it too.”

One million visitors pass through the doors of Edmonton City Centre every year. Many of those guest have experienced or are experiencing significant trauma in their lives. They may be living with the scars of adverse childhood events (ACES) or they may have fallen on hard times, unable to find work or housing; many are living with serious mental illness and its constant and debilitating companions – stigma and discrimination. And, many rely on substances to ease the pain of it all. For these people, the mall is not only a place to shop or get a coffee; it is a sanctuary.

Those who don’t understand, haven’t walked in their shoes, call them “zombies” or “weirdos” give them a wide berth, rush past, pretending not to see. But Brown, Oxford Properties and Paladin Security see them as human beings with a story, perhaps a harrowing life path that none would envy. The last thing they need is to be arrested. The first thing they need is to be seen as worthy and valuable human beings – and that might just be enough to save their lives.

Brown has worked at City Centre mall for 36 years. Over that time, there have been 20 deaths by suicide in the mall. In various roles over the years, she heard about these deaths and in some cases, wrote reports about them. But, she never allowed these tragedies to “sink in”:

I developed this shell and it’s like, ‘Okay, I didn’t make this choice’ and I’d offer up a prayer and move on.”

But, a convergence of events and insights, including three deaths by suicide at the mall within 18 months and another critical incident involving a vulnerable person made Pam realize something needed to change – that there is a better way of doing things – that there must be care and compassion and an understanding that there might be trauma somewhere. These are human beings who need someone, and that it might simply be a kind word that saves someone’s life:

Pam: “There’s got to be care and compassion. We’ve got to understand that there may be trauma somewhere … we don’t know their story and we have to try and manage this first with care, compassion, customer service, and if that doesn’t work, then you go into the policing model kind of thing…I realized we’re in the middle of a business centre – it’s a shopping centre, it’s not social services. But we should first think, ‘This is a human being who needs somebody, and it might be a kind word that saves their life’, and so that person may be very vulnerable.”

Pam also realized that at some point, any one of us might be vulnerable – herself, people on her security team, business owners in three-piece suits. In particular, she noted that some of Oxford’s security agents had attended all three of the recent deaths by suicide and might be vulnerable:

“But then, our security agent might be vulnerable as well…so we have to teach the security team and the whole property – we have to teach them that when you’re feeling vulnerable, you might not be the right person to approach this, or you may be the perfect person to approach this, but you have to know who you are.“

Around the same time, a successful enforcement effort to curb illegal activity in the mall was wrapping up. All things combined, Pam recognized it was time for her team to shift out of enforcement mode toward a support capacity – making the mall a safe and inclusive place for all of its patrons, including in particular its more vulnerable ones:

“Let’s be the good guys because we were the bad guys for years here. So, let’s be the good guys now. Let’s change that around; let’s start seeing what we can do. Let’s see if we can provide a little bit of support capacity in some way.”

But, how to do that? Not knowing exactly where or how to start, she began simply by calling various agencies for support:

“I had no idea how I was going to do it at the time, but you know, we had to figure it out somehow –even if it was to sit and talk with people for a few minutes and then phone somebody. And, we did a lot of phone calling in the beginning – the police Mental Health Unit, CMHA, social service agencies.”

And, she found Jenny Jones, Director of Crisis Support at The Support Centre, to talk with Oxford’s security staff about how to identify signs of suicidal intention – a very good first step. What “compassion-focused” mall security looks like: Safety, trusting relationships and linkages to formal services With a new vision for compassion-focused security in mind, a practice shift was needed. The existing security service provider had an excellent record of enforcement but struggled with the shift to a support role. When contract renewal time came, Oxford Properties set out new requirements aligned with a compassion-focused security model. Paladin Security rose to the top of candidates and was selected to take on the work. They understood the need for a compassionate approach from the beginning:

Pam: “Paladin walked in and they got it from the very beginning… They hired the right people to provide customer service and right off the bat, they started working with our teams on the floor and our Central Service people.”

From a compassion-based model, the approach is to understand that there may be trauma in peoples’ lives, to see people, to connect, to engage in conversation, listen, build rapport and trust, and whenever appropriate and possible, link to helpful supports. If these efforts fail to calm disruptive behaviours, then the person may be escorted by the security agent out of the building, oftentimes to appropriate and nearby services. Every effort is made to avoid arrests and criminalization except in the case of illegal activities.

Pam: “We’ve moved from arresting everybody who is trespassing to walking them out. For two reasons. One is for somebody who is having a bad day – who has mental health issues or trauma of some kind –they shouldn’t have a criminal record. We don’t want to give them a criminal record – we try to avoid criminalization; and the other thing is if people have a severe mental illness, how can you arrest them?”

Arrests are not only an insult to dignity and wellbeing; they are a double whammy for people who struggle to navigate the court system. Some have wound up in jail and experienced the associated downward spiral that often follows, simply because they lacked the means to appear in court for “trespassing” charges at the appointed time.

Edmonton City Centre mall

Edmonton City Centre. Photo courtesy of Oxford Properties Group.

With the new approach to security in place, security agents are developing trusting relationships with members of the mall’s more vulnerable population. The mall is viewed by many now as a safe space even safe enough to share thoughts of suicide. And the security team has become a connector – an informal linkage to formal addiction, mental health and social services that are in close proximity to the mall. Pam describes the kind of encounters that occur now:

“We have to talk to people and say, ‘Listen, you know, tell me what’s going on. People are really upset by the fact that you’re shouting… Can I help you?’ And so, for people that are displaying signs “of trauma, we try to approach them and let them know that we see them. And, what we’re finding is that when they know we see them, we know when they’re having a bad day… Most of the time they’ll nod, and they’ll say ‘Hi’, but on some days you know that life has just gotten out of hand and they’re not that happy. But they know they can trust us. So, we’ve got quite a few people who come for coffee and come for their meals and maybe a little bit of shopping and they feel safe enough to do that because they know that we’ll take care of them.

There’s a number of people who approach our security team to say, ‘I’m going to take my life today’, and we know they’re looking for help. They’re at their wit’s end, so we get them to WIN House or we get them to whatever agency we can, and if they’re not accepting that kind of help, we usually call the police because it’s probably more than we can handle… So there’s quite a few of those conversations.I think this is because the community knows that that conversation can be had here… while we aren’t a social services agency, I think people feel like we’re less judgmental than other locations, so they feel safe coming here.”

Paladin’s security team, alongside Oxford’s front line workers, also provides more tangible forms of support. They gather donations such as winter coats and shoes and second hand items in good form and offer these to mall patrons in need of such things. They also offer coffee and meals and have the discretion, under Oxford Properties’ policy, to spend up to $500 to meet customer needs.

Pam: If somebody comes in without a pair of shoes, we go through our box first to see if there’s some that will fit them – coats, mitts, hats, gloves – because people steal other peoples’ shoes downtown, so they come here thinking maybe they can warm up. They don’t ask for a pair of shoes, but we see them without shoes and we’ll see if we’ve got a pair that works for them. One of our agents saw a guy without shoes, realized he had big feet and probably wasn’t going to find anything, so [our agent] took his expensive shoes off, gave them to this guy and bought another pair for himself.

These are frontline people coming up with this…. It was one of the Paladin people that said, “When ‘Roll up the Rim’ comes, we should just save all the free doughnuts, the muffins, the coffees and hand them out if somebody needs coffee and a muffin’…. We’ll buy coffee or a meal and we reimburse people who do that. Very compassionate people… all that was at a grassroots level.”

This generosity has had some very welcome yet unanticipated consequences for the Edmonton City Centre security team – it has allowed them to express their compassion, generosity and humanity. It is a better feeling to be the “good guys”, to get to know people and to be able to express their humanity and generosity on the job, rather than being “enforcers”

Pam: “It was like they were waiting for permission to be good people, they are innately good people, but they just wanted to show that.” And while it can be frustrating at times to walk people out of the building, it is much easier than arresting and criminalizing them. By helping people rather than making their lives more difficult, the security agents feel better about themselves.”

Pam: “It’s easier on our agents – maybe a lot more frustrating – but it’s easier on their psyche when they’re able to walk somebody out …rather than arrest them and criminalize them, and make their day worse than it already is… You develop a stronger team when they see the individuals they’re dealing with are human beings and they make choices that are based on those individuals being human beings – and not just some kind of policy. It’s like when you go to the doctor and he sees you as a symptom rather than a human being. Well, the behaviour is a symptom of something that’s happened … that person needs to be treated like a person… it’s easier on the agents. It makes their life better. They feel better about themselves when they get home.”

Paladin Security also recognizes that initiatives like this help grow careers. Since most young security agents have their sights on a career in policing, having this in their resumé enhances their advancement prospects for two reasons. This is because they know how to take care of their own mental health; and second, they also recognize there is a better way of approaching situations involving vulnerable and marginalized people. They can support individuals in ways that don’t involve “policing” by referring individuals to the agency that can serve them best.

Of course, this is not to say that Edmonton City Centre is now a place where “any behaviour goes”. To the contrary, security agents strive to be good citizens, good representatives of the property, and good members of and partners with the downtown community. As such, they continually balance compassion with enforcement as needed to ensure illegal behaviours are squelched, and that the mall is a pleasant and safe space for everyone. In this way, they serve mall customers, tenants and vendors, but also the broader community of which the mall is a part:

Pam: “As long as we keep behaviour within the expected social norms, then we’re serving our tenants and our vendors and we’re serving our community, so that’s what we try to do.”

Paladin Security also sees this as a far-reaching initiative. Having numerous contracts in the downtown core, they often see many of the same people who frequent Edmonton City Centre, thereby extending their compassion-based approach beyond the mall.

Formalizing the approach: Compassion to Action training

Early educational efforts to help security staff recognize suicidal intentions were a helpful and important starting point, but more was needed – particularly that people need to also be able to take care of their own mental health while responding and afterward. Oxford Properties and Paladin Security see the need for a proactive approach that will help prevent development of mental health problems for their own staff who attend traumatic events:

Pam: “I’m still not satisfied that we’re doing enough for the young security team because they are young and right now they all think they’re invulnerable – they’re going to see this stuff and it’s never going to bother them – but as you grow older you kind of realize that maybe it does bother you because you never examined it and never came to terms with it and one day it pops up.”

Given the deaths by suicide at the mall, Edmonton Police Services invited Pam to sit as a business person on the Edmonton Suicide Prevention Strategy Implementation Planning Committee. Here, she became an ambassador for business, and she connected with numerous mental health, addiction and social service agencies. And it’s where she met David Rust, Project Lead for the Community Mental Health Action Plan.

Through discussion with David and others on the Committee, the idea of developing a training program for security staff and, ultimately business owners in the mall, began to grow. Now, a more formalized training plan has been developed and tested. Oxford Properties collaborated with experts in trauma, addiction, mental health literacy, treatment and training and the Community

Mental Health Action group to design and deliver a mix of online and classroom training called “Compassion to Action”. Training content was developed collaboratively by Line Perron, Training Consultant with the Community Mental Health Action Plan, with Oxford Properties and Paladin Security. This one-day training focuses on moving from “protection to connection” and trauma informed care (TIC), which encourages understanding people through the lens of “What happened to you?”, rather than“What’s wrong with you?”. TIC also emphasizes understanding how what has happened to people shapes who they are today and how they behave. This includes learning about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), what to look for, how to create an environment of engagement, and how to connect with people who have experienced trauma in their lives. Practical advice about connecting with local agencies is also included. Finally, the training helps participants learn how to keep one’s mind “solid” when responding to traumatic events such as deaths by suicide; how to protect and maintain one’s own mental health; and, how to ask for help when needed.The immediate target audience is the security team at Edmonton City Centre, but the ultimate aim is to provide training and information to all tenants of the mall with the intention of making the mall a welcoming, safe, inclusive, trauma informed environment.

Pam: “All of our tenants need to know what our security agents know because there’s a barrier for them too – they see homeless people, people with addictions, people with mental illness amongst all the regular people in their stores – having the information available online and in class for them as well [will help them] understand that this is what our society is comprised of – and that you can’t ignore these people; they don’t go away.”

David Rust believes this training will help shift the culture around mental health and addiction to one of greater compassion, inclusion and connection in Edmonton. It will change how people are welcomed, engaged and supported at Edmonton City Centre. Rust anticipates vulnerable persons will be treated better and be less victimized, and that in fact, this appears to be happening already:

David Rust: “People in the mall will now be treated better or even less victimized – you can see that already… I’d love to see the same kind of engagement from someone that works in a watch shop in the mall – that they can begin to engage the mall’s vulnerable persons differently, too.”

Ripple effects…

Edmonton City Centre mall interior.

Edmonton City Centre. Photo courtesy of Oxford Properties Group.

Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association recently asked Pam Brown to speak about the changes the mall has made. What she shared with them was that Oxford Properties is changing the community. And Oxford is continuing its commitment to the community, most recently through partnership with the City of Edmonton on its’ RECOVER: Urban Wellness Plan.

Pam: “As an offshoot of this project we have also entered into a project with the City of Edmonton. We are seeking alternate methods of engaging the community, involving all the Oxford staff and not just the security providers, so that the vulnerable have more to do in their day giving them something more to look forward to than just the same routine each day. This collaboration with the City of Edmonton truly underscores our commitment to the community and we are excited to see what we can accomplish.”

Oxford is also finding that other corporations are now wanting to employ their security agents:

“What we’re seeing right now is that a lot of other corporations not only want security agents wearing our uniform – and it’s an Oxford uniform – they want the people because there’s presence, there’s compassion, there’s empathy and care.”

Given the millions of people who pass through the mall each year, and even more powerfully, the vast number of major retail and office spaces owned by Oxford Properties Group in Alberta and around the world, the potential influence of this initiative is staggering in its potential.

Trauma-Informed Care Resources

Alberta Health Services. Trauma informed care modules. https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/info/page15526.aspx

Alberta Health Services. Why Welcoming is Important handout: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/amh/if-amhecc-why-welcoming-is-important-qrs.pdf

Arthur, E., Seymour, A., Dartnall, M., Beltgens, P., Poole, N., Smylie, D., … Schmidt, R. (2013). Trauma-informed practice guide. Vancouver, B.C: BC Provincial Mental Health and Substance Use Planning Council.

Barnett Brown, V. 2018. Through a trauma lens. Transforming health and behavioral health systems. New York: Routledge.

Bloom, S. & Farragher, B. 2013 Restoring sanctuary. A new operating system for trauma-informed systems of care.New York: Oxford University Press.

Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse Trauma Informed Care http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/CCSA-Trauma-informed-Care-Toolkit-2014-en.pdf

Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (2001). Envisioning a trauma-informed service-system: A vital paradigm shift. New Directions in Mental Health Services, 89, 3-22.

Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Centre (MTIEC). 2013. Trauma-informed: The trauma toolkit (2nd ed.). Winnipeg, MB: Author.

Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Centre: http://trauma-informed.ca

Poole, N., & Greaves, L. (Eds.). 2012. Becoming trauma informed. Toronto, ON: CAMH. SAMHSA. 2013. TIP 57 Trauma-informed care in behavioral health systems. Author.