Building a basis for best practices on safe and empathetic interactions.

Communities across the nation are faced with rising unhoused populations, as issues from affordable housing and stagnant wages to mental health and inflation reap consequences. City infrastructure often does not support those communities’ basic needs. With limited resources, unhoused populations turn to restaurants and other public spaces to seek shelter, which can result in conflicts with team members and guests. 

Mike Simmons, vice president of human resources, risk management, and legal at WKS Restaurant Group is on a mission to build the kind of framework that will allow restaurants to work with unhoused populations, local government, communities, and law enforcement. The goal is to find a way to address both specific interactions, as well as address underlying issues. 

“We’re in the process of identifying the training piece for our manager teams so they don’t just escalate but look at the emotional intelligence side of it, “ Simmons says. “We want to brief, train, and educate our managers that the unhoused are not their enemy. They have their own problems, concerns, and lives to lead. If we bring empathy to it and find a way to change the nature of the communication with the unhoused, we’ll likely see a different result.”

Too often, issues like the unhoused population are ignored, as hospitality and retail establishments avoid dealing with the real problem at hand. “I think we tend to ignore uncomfortable problems or just apply one measure or initiative because we think at least we can say we’ve done something about that situation,” Simmons says. However, team members, management, and customers appreciate when serious problems are taken seriously and addressed thoroughly. 

Thorough Approach: The 13-point Initiative

The goal is to create a safe environment for employees, customers, and the unhoused rather than escalate interactions or assume employees can manage without training or support. Simmon’s created a 13-point initiative to roll out to all WKS locations, which span 19 states and include more than 200 locations. The comprehensive plan includes initiatives from accountability and awareness strategies for team members, landlords, and local officials to deterrence strategies like advanced video surveillance, lighting, and signage. 

“The aggressive behavior from some individuals in the unhoused population has impacted the overall dining experience, not just for our employees, but for our guests,” Simmons says. “We’ve even experienced situations where we’ve had a decrease in foot traffic, and that’s hard in the restaurant industry. So we put together what we consider a pretty comprehensive plan designed to take a different approach to the unhoused.”

Mitigating Risks Through Training and Technology

WKS relies on its partnership with Envysion to ensure employees are protected around the clock, and every onsite person will have the backup of a remote resource. The advanced on-site surveillance, Smart Site Protection, is one of the most important parts of the initiative to protect employees, customers, and the unhoused without relying on outdated and expensive safety techniques like security guards and increased law enforcement presence. 

Forcing untrained employees and managers to deal with upset or dangerous unhoused can be detrimental to the business, community, and employees involved. This is why the WKS initiative relies on thorough de-escalation training for employees and remote surveillance to make sure employees can use their training to maintain the safety of the location.

“We’re implementing the advanced site video surveillance and an employee escort,” Simmons says. “We refer to it as the voice of God, because there’s this two-way communication mechanism between the manager who’s trying to deal with the situation and a command center monitoring the situation from afar, but also can immediately dial 911 and emphasize that we have an emergency that should be dealt with.”

Simmons wants restaurants to rely less on local law enforcement, who may depend on escalation or force. Training employees in de-escalation and focusing on advanced video surveillance can have both a practical and empathetic impact on relations between restaurants and the unhoused. 

“We’re looking at the community partnership side of it and working on our pre-incident response and de-escalation,” Simmons says. “But we’re also trying to support our employees and give them the comfort of knowing that technology is surrounding them, which makes them more likely to implement the de-escalation techniques.” 

Unhoused populations are a reality in every area and will continue to affect restaurants, customers, and employees. Positive, safe interactions must be the goal, and WKS is leading by establishing best practices for confrontation with the unhoused. Partnering with Envysion enabled WKS to work out how to handle interactions with the unhoused safely, effectively, and compassionately.

For more information on Envysion’s advanced managed video surveillance and Smart Site Protection visit here

By Ya’el McLoud

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