Woodstock police offering ‘hand up, not hand out’

by | Dec 15, 2023

Innovative backpack program designed to help officers provide immediate support for homeless, transients, and others facing personal challenges

The only disagreement surrounding the benefits of Woodstock Police Force’s innovative new initiative to provide local homeless with a “hand up” may be who should take credit for it.

The program, which began Dec. 1, would see town police officers handing out backpacks full of personal care items to residents and transients facing dire circumstances.

Deputy Chief Mark Bennett credits Sherrie Hunter for quickly spearheading the community-funded program and bringing a long list of generous donors on board.

Hunter quickly pointed out the idea for the unique program aimed at helping those in need came from Bennett.

“I had the idea, but Sherrie ran with it,” Bennett responded.

They agreed the full backpacks were a result of Woodstock’s generosity.

“This is a hand up, not a handout,” said Bennett, who explained the backpack program is designed to treat recipients with respect and dignity as they face difficult circumstances.

He explained Woodstock police officers regularly encounter people in dire circumstances, whether they are homeless, transient or facing other personal challenges. He added the officers feel frustrated they can do little to improve their situation.

Bennett said the officers can now provide these people with a backpack, offering immediate help and possibly providing at least a little time to improve their circumstances.

Hunter explained the backpacks contain several items, including knitted socks, mittens, toques and an emergency blanket. They also include personal care items such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, bottled water and power bars.

Bennett and Hunter stressed their appreciation for local residents and business people who quickly stepped forward to provide and fill the backpacks.

The list includes local dentists Dr. Kent Orlando and Dr. Alex Wishart, McLeod Riverside Court’s knitting group, Sobey’s, Canadian Tire, Annette Draper, Wendy MacMillan, Mark’s Work Wearhouse, Padre Walter Williams, Winnfield Bunting of Buntings Grocery, Best Western Woodstock, members of the Woodstock Police Force and donors who asked to remain anonymous.

Bennett said they chose backpack contents to provide immediate help but not encourage outdoor encampments.

Bennett said a critical part of the backpack contents is the laminated card attached to each, providing contact numbers for community outreach groups who could assist.

“Maybe this will get them where they need to go,” he said. “Maybe this will give someone a glimmer of hope, and they will reach out to someone who can help,”

The deputy chief explained the program is community-driven and funded, which comes at no cost to the town.

“We didn’t want this to be a Woodstock Police Force project, so we reached out to the community,” he said.

He said the community responded as he expected.

“It came together really, really quickly,” he said.

Bennett said the program is designed to offer help to those in need. Officers won’t collect personal information from backpack recipients, although they know the community well enough to ensure no one will abuse the program.

Bennett and Hunter held a media conference on Dec. 6 after presenting the program to the Woodstock council on Nov. 28, noting staff and councillors expressed full support.

Bennett said the program paints a different face of the Woodstock Police Force and helps officers feel less ineffective after encountering struggling residents and visitors.

“We want police to be more than an enforcement tool,” he said.

Bennett said the force has 10 complete backpacks to hand out and enough to fill 10 more. He

said they would reach out to the community again if more were needed.

The backpack contents are on display at the Woodstock Police Force media centre. (Jim Dumville photo)

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