St. Catharines’ compassionate city initiative ‘first of its kind’ in country
By Scott Rosts – Niagara This Week – St. Catharines
Mayor hopes to begin rollout to city staff in April
ST. CATHARINES — Walter Sendzik first mentioned it during his inaugural address at the start of this term of council. He wanted to see St. Catharines become a leader in many ways.
“We can build a city that is compassionate, sustainable and prosperous,” Sendzik said on Dec. 14, 2014, just weeks after being elected as mayor.
And while he and council continue to work on making St. Catharines was that first value — compassion — that has become a major focus for Sendzik. It was an important takeaway in his State of the City address in January, where he told hundreds of community members there needs to be a philosophy of “care plus action” when it comes to the city and the community at large during day-to-day life, and it returned to the spotlight during the budget process last week when council approved a $5,000 pilot project for the compassionate city initiative.
It’s an initiative Sendzik says has never been done before in Canada, and it’s already gaining attention — in April he will speak at the Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead national gathering to talk about the initiative and what the city is doing to address poverty, improve public transit and reform local governance.
“This will be a first of its kind in terms of the compassionate city model,” Sendzik told councillors last Monday night, when the initiative received unanimous support.
In an interview last Friday with Niagara this Week, Sendzik said the rollout will begin in early April with an online module that will be used to initiate the program by identifying resources and sharing goals and objectives. It will entail training of city staff to deal with some of the vulnerable members of the community who are battling issues such as mental illness and homelessness.
“It’s about corporate training and development based on the concept of building from within,” said Sendzik. “We have 600-plus employees that we can train and build awareness with, to identify how they can play a positive role in the compassionate city model. They touch every part of our community and if they have the confidence and resources when they’re out and see some of the cues, they can try to mitigate the condition in which some of these people are living.”
In addition to the launch of the online portal they will also try to organize a bus trip for staff to look at some of the examples of what’s happening in the community. There’s also much deeper conversations to be had, including identifying opportunities for affordable housing, looking at transit subsidies and creating cost-effective transportation, and looking at how to incorporate that “lens of compassion” into council business, as well.
The roots of the initiative, said Sendzik, stem from meetings with the mayor’s poverty reduction advisory group, as well as local agencies and organizations and one-on-one meetings with Tim Arnold of Southridge Community Church and emergency shelter.
“I wanted to know what they saw as the gaps and how we could be part of that as a municipality and corporation,” said Sendzik. “It’s very much a way of thinking. It’s the lens in which you as an individual look at your community with. Using a less of compassion versus a lens of indifference or frustration or anger when looking at society.”
There have already been eye-opening moments — the run in with the woman who used the now trimmed-back bushes in Centennial Gardens as an escape route for safety, or the woman who questions why the bathrooms at city hall close at 6 p.m. when they are much needed later in the evening. There was also a conversation with a homeless man about the need to have access to showers.
“It’s about looking into how can create a safe environment to allow access and alleviate their challenges to the best of our ability,” said Sendzik. “That’s the kind of thinking we’re trying to introduce. We take for granted a lot of the stuff we have on a daily basis – three square meals a day, a shower, a bed and a roof over our head.”
It’s an issue that has always been on the radar for Sendzik over the years through his work with different organizations, but when he became mayor it provided a new forum and opportunity.
“I’m now in a position where I can create and lead in the development of an initiative that can have long-lasting and impactful results,” he said. “It could have been easy to support some of the different efforts out there already, but we wanted to do something different. The path of least resistance is always the easiest to choose, but in a subject like this, it’s important for us to not choose the easiest path, because it won’t lead to the long-lasting results.”
During a recent episode of Our Home with Mayor Sendzik on TVCogeco, Arnold and YWCA Niagara executive director Elisabeth Zimmermann said they supported the initiative and stressed the concept of treating every human with respect and dignity is crucial.
“If we chose to have a compassionate lens with everyone that’s a powerful thing,” said Arnold, noting all it can take sometimes is a smile or handshake. “The movement of us towards being committed to being a more compassionate city has a potential to transform the City of St. Catharines.”
Zimmermann said as a community sometimes it takes just getting more engaged and involved to see the community in that different lens.
“That direct experience, talking to someone, humanizes it,” she said. “Volunteering is an amazing way to become involved and understand the challenges and issues people are dealing with.”
Sendzik is looking forward to sharing the vision and preliminary work at the poverty reduction conference next month in Alberta and hopes it will just add more momentum.
“I think it can be a model communities can emulate. All cities are dealing with the same challenges, so if we can build on this and strengthen it, it’s an important thing,” he said.