Private rights versus public warmth

Malls face a moral dilemma in providing shelter for Toronto's frozen homeless

It’s winter in Toronto and baby, it’s cold outside.

As thousands of people flock to the shopping malls in search of Christmas gifts, those who are less fortunate will be heading to the malls as well, but for a different reason – to find shelter.

But what happens when mall security is faced with the question of whether or not to escort these people off the property when they have no intentions on spending money?

Chris Eversley is the manager of security and life safety at Sherway Gardens in Etobicoke.

“The thing about private property is agents of the owner are responsible for enforcing rules and regulations. You dictate who you want on your property,” he said. “Everyone is welcome here until they cause a problem or until it becomes an issue.”

Eversley said there haven’t been any problems reported recently at Sherway, but his staff has been faced this sort of challenge before.

“It is tough for the officers to have to escort these people out,” he said. “But… if they’re not causing a disturbance they’re welcome to stay as long as they’re not loitering, sleeping or doing anything that distracts customers away from their intended goal, to shop.”

In a February 2008 publication, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) reported that the City of Toronto has shut down a number of shelters as an initiative to save millions of dollars.

John Clarke is an organizer with OCAP. He says the closure of these shelters will force thousands of people to find refuge elsewhere, including shopping malls.

“The reality is that there aren’t enough places for people to go,” he said. “It’s only a glimpse of what’s to come because the changes taking place in the economy don’t bode well in terms of the growth in homelessness.”

Eversley says, whether the homeless stay or leave the mall comes down to the morality of the security guards.

“We try to make sure we’re not sending them out into the rain or in the cold,” he said. “Yes there are laws, but you don’t necessarily have to enforce them. There is some degree of moral responsibility that you have so it’s basically a decision of whether you want to go by the word of the law or just bend it a little bit.”

However, Clarke thinks the security guards’ workplace responsibilities will win over their morals.

“A security guard is only a representative of the corporation that owns the premises so they are presumably going to follow their instructions,” he said.