By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on January 12, 2024.
With businessman Hunter Heggie chairing, the new Downtown Lawlessness Reduction Task Force got down to business on Thursday with a meeting at City Hall.
The task force is a sub committee of the Safety and Social Standing Policy Committee which reports to city council.
The public meeting at 7:30 a.m. in council chamber attracted a sparse audience on a frigid morning – one spectator unattached to representative groups watched the proceedings.
The bulk of the public portion of the meeting, before the task force went into a closed session, focused around a proposal from Helpseeker Technologies on the analysis of City data to help prioritize the work of the task force.
CEO Alina Turner of Helpseekers gave a remote presentation to the task force and answered questions posed by its members which include members of the Downtown Lethbridge Business Revitalization Zone and departments of the City of Lethbridge.
Helpseekers is a data analyst and artificial intelligence software company that deals with complex social problems, the task force was told. Those include homelessness, addictions and others which will be tackled by the task force’s scope of work, Turner said.
“We’ll need to take a look at what’s in store from your team members on the ground to make sure that we’re representing it properly,” she said of the data.
The company has done work on guns and gangs, social disorders, complex needs, encampments, novel psychoactive substances and recovery systems of care, Turner said.
Customers of the company have included the cities of Red Deer, Thunder Bay, Ont., Sudbury, Ont., Burnaby, B.C., Langley, B.C. and Moncton, New Brunswick as well as police forces in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto.
The expected impact of Helpseekers, if hired, is to help the task force gain a deeper understanding of downtown lawlessness and provide data-backed strategies for the force.
The cost of the company’s services is $9,999.
Task force member Deputy police chief Gerald Grobmeier told Turner he is familiar with the company’s work from time he spent in Red Deer asked Turner what data the company is anticipating and how does she anticipate getting it. Having an AI program run through LPS data is problematic, the deputy chief said.
Turner said if there is sensitive data the LPS wants to include is Helpseekers will only work through the force’s data environment.
Acting mayor John Middleton-Hope asked her what the committee can hope to get out of a data analysis.
Turner told him “the dependance is on what the quality of the data is and what we can get out of the data,” adding that having done this before she was going to make assumptions that the data will look similar to what it looks like elsewhere.
The company will provide insights into types and volumes and inter-connections around geography, including particular hot spots and the movement of some of these issues in the community, she said.
Sarah Amies of the Downtown BRZ said one suggestion is that face-to-face interviews be done with members of her organization which has 700 addresses and about 500 businesses to find out what their experiences are on their ground.
She asked once that information is collected if it could be turned over to Helpseekers to be included in overall data.
Turner responded yes.
Task force member Matthew McHugh said one issue the BRZ has found is that members aren’t calling 311, 911 or the police anymore.
“It just doesn’t happen” so he wondered with if the task force does its own survey if that’s something the company has seen before.
“All the time,” Turner said.
Turner told the force in response to a question from member Sheri Kain if she could provide examples of solutions the company has put forward with data collected, there are many including the encampment response in Edmonton presently underway.
“Our solution there was to develop an integrated response between policing, social services and the province of Alberta, Alberta Health Services, around the decampment in Edmonton.”
That included developing targeting high-risk encampments to decamp them appropriately and ensure the right interventions are going to be put in place and to have coordinated technology infrastructure to make sure that clients are moving in the proper sequence, ensuring there’s enough shelter space for people want shelter.
Public concerns about making people more vulnerable had to be addressed. And it had to be acknowledged some people are at camps to victimize vulnerable people.
“Those folks will scatter so we don’t’ necessarily need a housing intervention there. We need a policing enforcement intervention so that balance of social and health and enforcement becomes really critical and the co-ordination between those parties is essential,” said Turner.
One thing Helpseekers is supporting in Edmonton is a command centre around social disorder as well, she said.
This hasn’t been done before in Canada, Turner said.
She said many issues are longstanding, but the way they’re coming together now is different than before COVID.
“The COVID phenomenon has really changed the game” and now research grade pharmaceuticals that are pre-cursors to some street drugs are coming into play such as xylazine which “basically gets combined with fentanyl and makes any intervention around resuscitation after an overdose basically moot because it cancels out those medications.
“Those drugs are coming in faster and faster,” said Turner adding she knows for sure in Lethbridge there is xylazine in the drug supply.
“How do we disrupt that piece as well? The majority of that supply comes through the mail actually,” Turner said.
“That’s changing so solutions need to keep up with the times.”