What do you do…
- if you are located in south Edmonton, and your struggle with mental health and addictions have lead you to living on the streets?
- if you have lost your west-end home after an injury has prevented you from working?
- if you are a youth who has left an abusive household, and you are finding yourself on your own for the first time in your life?
Without family or peer support, you feel you have no other options but to live outside. You do not own a vehicle. You can maybe afford transit, but you are scared to leave your belongings unattended. You don’t know there are services available to you, and if you do, you may be unwilling to access them due to embarrassment, fear, or a lack of trust in the systems that have mistreated you time and time again.
What do you do?
Are you another person to fall through the cracks?
Enter Boyle Street Community Services’
Street Outreach Program.
Street Outreach was created in 2011 and is one of Boyle Street’s several outreach programs. Street Outreach consists of a team that goes out into the city with the purpose to connect with people who are living rough.
Living Rough: living and sleeping outside year-round, either on the streets or in camps in the river valley and green-spaces around the city.
In pairs of two, these teams head out on foot at 7:00 am, five days a week, donned with backpacks full of basic supplies like water bottles, socks, granola bars, and harm reduction supplies. In the winter, this would also include gloves and toques — Yes, I said winter — Street Outreach operates year-round in response to the shocking amount of people who live outside in the dangerous, below-freezing weather conditions during the winter months.
Street Outreach embodies themes that resonate through all of Boyle Street’s programs:
Meeting People Where They Are At
The Street Outreach teams will hike the river valley, bush-wack through green space, and pound the pavement to get to their clients. Once acquainted with a person living rough, Street Outreach does not push an agenda, and there are no qualifications needed to be met before the team can offer support.
Since January of this year, Street Outreach has made 1,828 contacts with 194 unique participants (people whose full names and birth dates are known) and 1,166 more contacts with anonymous participants. Dependent on the client, this could mean the team provides only a bottle of water and their contact information. There are also clients who are in want of housing, legal support, and harm reduction supplies. In each case, the Street Outreach team supports the client in accessing the services they need. Often this means facilitating new relationships with other Boyle Street programs. This year alone Street Outreach has made 346 referrals to housing, 286 referrals to medical services, and 201 referrals to income services. The interconnected nature of Street Outreach is essential to best serve their clientele.
Building Meaningful Relationships
Street Outreach is in the business of long-term relationship building. Ideally, Street Outreach connects each person living rough with support services that lead them to getting housed. So far in 2018, 28 individuals have been housed. However, housing is not always a client’s priority, as other barriers (most commonly insufficient income, physical health issues, and mental health issues) must be addressed before secure housing can be successful.
Every person moves at a different pace, and each individual’s unique life experiences create different barriers. Where one person might have lost all trust in others due to a lifetime of abandonment, another might have lost all faith in themselves after failing to stay housed three times previously. Every person needs different kinds of supports; the only way to know this is by building honest, meaningful relationships, and that is what Street Outreach does. As with any trusting relationship, this takes time and patience. Particularly with our clients, Street Outreach must also demonstrate commitment, consistency, and treating every person with respect and dignity.
A cornerstone to the functioning of every Boyle Street program is harm reduction, and Street Outreach is no exception. Being able to provide clean harm reduction supplies is the first step in connecting clients with Street Works, Boyle Street’s needle exchange, STI prevention, and overdose prevention program.
For clients who are living rough and struggle with addictions, harm reduction supplies help prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Providing educational resources regarding STIs and overdose prevention keeps our clients as safe and healthy as possible while involved in a high-risk living situation. Harm reduction can also include providing a person with access to clean clothing or transportation to attend an appointment. Each step towards a healthier and safer life is celebrated and seen as a success.
The Street Outreach team must be tenacious, as they face an ever-changing work environment.
Maintaining relationships with clients can be difficult when a team can go from connecting with a handful of new clients, to finding that a known camp has been abandoned or forcibly torn down.
Most days are spent building new relationships with clients, but due to a surge in need, the Street Outreach teams are increasingly shouldering the responsibility of supporting clients through accessing and navigating services. To accommodate this need, Street Outreach has worked hard to cultivate relationships with the City of Edmonton, the City’s Park Rangers, and utilizing Boyle Street’s relationship with Edmonton Police Services.
Street Outreach sees the people who the general public have grown accustomed to looking past.
Many Edmontonians are neighbours with our clients, literally living side by side, yet not realizing they are there. Street Outreach challenges the idea of what homelessness looks like. People living rough come from a diverse background of life experiences: professionals, intellectuals, trades people, etc.
Street Outreach is an ongoing program that exists to facilitate long-term positive changes to those who otherwise would not have access to support or services. It is unique, relevant, important, and another service Boyle Street offers to empower people to break down the barriers attributing to homelessness.
There is no better way to understand the gravity of this amazing program and the resiliency of the clients until you hear a first hand account. The following is just one of the hundreds of lives touch by Street Outreach:
Ashley is a 31-year-old woman who has been known to Street Outreach for several years, although throughout those years contact has been sporadic at best. As a young woman living primarily by herself, moving her camp from place to place throughout Edmonton’s river valley, Ashley lived a life focused on surviving day to day, and Street Outreach struggled to form a meaningful relationship with her. At two separate times, she was referred to a housing program, though the housing workers were unable to make contact and each time Ashley’s case was dismissed.
In the late winter of 2018, Street Outreach came across a small camp in a gulley in a ravine. The weather was frequently bouncing between warm and cold, with constant thawing and freezing, and this created incredibly treacherous conditions in the ravine. When Street Outreach approached the tent, they came across Ashley, camped by herself. It had been more than a year since any Outreach worker had seen or spoken with her. They learned that Ashley had been living in Fort McMurray, where she had begun receiving AISH and had, after years outside, moved into an apartment. She had come to Edmonton again temporarily, intending to stay only for a day or two, but was left behind by her partner and later robbed of all belongings and identification.
Ashley was struggling greatly with the uncertainty of her situation, yet continuing, as she always had, to survive throughout it. She expressed that she wished to go back to Fort McMurray but did not know how to do so without any money or ID. She could only remember the first name of her AISH worker. Jane from Outreach was able to Google search the number to the Fort McMurray AISH office on her phone, which was instantly answered (rarely logistically possible in Edmonton) and the AISH worker’s full name and phone number provided. Joy, the AISH worker, also answered instantly, again a new and rare experience for Outreach! Joy spoke directly with Ashley, who, although emotional, explained her situation again. After speaking with Ashley, Joy told Jane that she would see what she could do and be back in touch shortly. In the meantime, Jane and Damien went to buy some breakfast for Ashley.
Barely fifteen minutes later, Joy called back to say that she had purchased a bus ticket back to Fort McMurray for Ashley for 1:30pm the same day. One of Ashley’s concerns had been being able to even board a bus without any form of ID – a barrier the general public so rarely has to think about. Joy provided a confirmation number and a “password” that Ashley could use to board the bus. Shocked at how quickly things had come together, Jane and Damien rushed back to Ashley. When she heard the news, she began packing her few belongings into bags. Having a few hours before the bus would leave, Jane and Damien helped Ashley take her bags of empty bottles to the depot so she would have some cash on hand, took her to the Mustard Seed Personal Assistance Centre for a change of clean clothes and hygiene items, and stopped to get her a bagged lunch to have on the long bus ride.
As the morning went on, Ashley began opening up more, laughing and telling stories. At one point she took out her keys and exclaimed with pride, “See? I do have my own place!” Eventually Jane and Damien brought Ashley to the bus depot. Once Ashley had her ticket in hand, she turned to the Outreach workers, looked both of them in the eye, shook their hands and thanked them before they left.
After such inconsistent contact previously, the joy and reward of being able to spend the full morning with Ashley was not lost on Jane and Damien. To be able to collaborate so efficiently with other professionals, and for Ashley, in such an uncertain and frightening situation, to put her trust in the workers to help her return home, was outreach and relationship at its finest.