FOCUS Partnership Turns 10

By Ron Fanfair

Ron Fanfair


Community Partnerships and Engagement Unit

An enduring police and community agency partnership celebrated a decade of helping the city’s most vulnerable people get the help they need.

FOCUS Toronto is a collaboration of over 160 community agencies led by a cross-sector partnership between the Toronto Police Service, the City of Toronto and the United Way of Greater Toronto.

The model brings together the most appropriate community agencies at a weekly situation-table model to provide a targeted, wrap-around approach to the most vulnerable individuals, families and places that are experiencing heightened levels of risk in a specific geographic location.

Since its inception in the city in 2013, there have been 5,500 interventions involving over 9,000 people with over 30,000 risks and acute victimization.

At a celebratory conference on June 2 at Toronto Police College to mark the 10th anniversary, United Way Greater Toronto FOCUS Manager Evon Smith thanked Toronto Police and the agencies for the work they do to make the most vulnerable in Toronto their focus.

“You helped the most vulnerable Torontonians subjected to gun and gang violence, suicide attempts, substance use, overdoses, domestic violence, threats, developmental disabilities, poverty, eviction, human trafficking, physical disabilities, criminal victimization, lack of basic needs like food and clothing, unemployment, sexual violence and any combination of the above,” he said.

“I know this is a long list, but I believe it is important for you to all know and understand the gravity of the work you do on a daily basis.”

Some examples of the clients helped at FOCUS tables:

  • When a young woman had her home shot at three times over a two-week span, police asked the agencies for help and they rallied to support her and her family.
  • When a man who had been randomly assaulting passers-by, who had also been banned at six community agencies because of his behaviour, a FOCUS table took the case to work together to find ways to get the mental health support he needed to stop the violent episodes.

Acting Staff Sergeant Brian Smith joined FOCUS in 2016 as the TPS operational lead to scale the program alongside his counterparts from the City and the United Way of Greater Toronto

There are six tables covering 13 TPS Divisions (with the exception of 53, 55 and 33 Divisions).

“In addition to having this celebration, we want to focus on systemic barriers that make it difficult to carry out successful interventions,” he said. “Sometimes, these are system-level issues. FOCUS is more than just dealing with situations on the ground helping families and individuals. Because all the sectors work together, we are able to identify issues and barriers to do effective work and we are able to advocate and eliminate those barriers.”

Each table has designated FOCUS divisional officers and FOCUS Co-Chairs from the Community Partnerships and Engagement Unit that sit at the situation tables.

Acting Staff Superintendent Shannon Dawson said FOCUS is an incredible success and a shining example of what can be achieved when partners work together.

“The partnership provides our Toronto Police officers with a direct way to help and support the most vulnerable members of our communities,” she pointed out. “By connecting individuals and families to the community supports that are needed and, importantly most appropriate, collectively you are able to reduce crisis, emergency, harms and victimization that often lead to 9-1-1 calls.”

Dawson promised TPS will work diligently to optimize its FOCUS operations.

‘We do not want to miss any opportunity to get people at the FOCUS tables,” she said. “We start FOCUS training with new recruits and are regularly training officers across the Service on how best to recognize and refer acutely elevated risk situations to the FOCUS tables.”

A decade ago, then Deputy Chief Peter Sloly approached Superintendent Greg Watts – he was a Sergeant at the time – saying ‘he heard Prince Albert was doing cool stuff and I should look into it’.

The Hub Model was established in 2011 as a ‘first of its kind’ to building safer communities and reducing crime.  It was implemented in the city of Prince Albert and surrounding communities, many of which extend well into northern Saskatchewan. 

“I realized it is something that is revolutionary,” said Watts. “The collaborative work they were able to do in Saskatchewan to deal with levels of risk and help people was incredible.”

He reached out to Scott McKean who is the City of Toronto Community Development Manager.

“We sat down and agreed this is something we should do,” Watts recounted. “There was no point in building it in a silo because that defeats the purpose. We then got United Way on board and they became a partner without hesitating. Along with Jamie Robinson representing United Way, we started the process of how do we do this in Toronto and what are the barriers we need to identify and break down to make it happen and who else do we need to get on board.”

The first hub was set up in Rexdale in 2013.

McKean said there was a need for high-risk intervention model at the time.

“We just wanted to bring multiple partners together and create a new way of doing the work,” he said. “With them, we started weaving it through our service system and building it so it became part of a culture of how we do things in Toronto. I am proud of everybody who is involved. Everyone plays a role, but it is the teams that are meeting every week in terms of the actual interventions. It is really a multi-sector effort.”

Scerena Officer, the City of Toronto Community Safety and Wellbeing Unit Manager, is the City’s FOCUS lead.

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