It’s Friday, 1pm, and the Positive Living lunch for our clients is just getting started downstairs, in the drop-in space. It’s pretty crowded today, and I’m waiting for Waylon and Chelsea to finish their conversations with the people in the room so that we can leave. I’m going with them on outreach; I’ve always wanted to understand what that means.
We meet with John in front of the Kahanoff Centre, near the Calgary Tower. He works as the Aboriginal Outreach Coordinator at the Canadian Mental Health Association and he does outreach every Friday with Chelsea and Waylon. Chelsea, who is part of Shift, HIV Community Link’s program for people in the sex industry, also goes on outreach with John on Mondays. Chelsea stands out from the four of us, all wearing dark clothes, with her rainbow hair.
As we set out I notice that there are a group of men standing across the street. Chelsea tells me that this is known as “cash corner” and that they are all looking for work. If they are lucky, somebody will pick them up and pay them cash for casual labour, unqualified work. There are more and more people waiting there because of the recession, Chelsea tells me. As we’re walking by, I can count more than 15.
John comes out of the building carrying a trolley. He keeps food hampers in it to hand them out to people living on the streets. “I usually take ten with me,” he says, “Fifteen if I’m really ambitious. Beans – that’s what they like best.” John explains to me what’s in the food hamper.
The outreach workers hand out food that is easy to eat on the streets – cans of tuna or sardines with pop-tops, popcorn, something to drink and they really like sweets. Waylon has his own backpack with snacks, harm reduction items, transit tickets and even Tim’s cards for a hot meal for those who really need it. Food and basic necessities are the best way to create a connection and to work with the people they meet on the streets. Right now, the outreach workers are low on underwear and socks, but they have gloves to give out.
“Care for a food hamper?” asks John the guy under the bridge at the next block. His name is also John and Chelsea starts talking to him about Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped. Chelsea has known him for a while now; he’s been trying to get this disability payment, known as AISH, for two years. They talk while the other John gives him food and a pair of gloves. Winter is coming. More people are joining us. One of them, a woman with blonde hair, also knows Chelsea. This woman was homeless not that long ago and had addiction problems, things Chelsea has experienced herself. Chelsea’s experience helps when she is doing outreach and she is so good at understanding their problems. Just as we are leaving, the blonde girl gives Chelsea a yellow rose. “We were talking about a common friend. He died of a Fentanyl overdose. She wanted me to have the flower to remember our dear friend.” On Wednesdays, Chelsea does outreach together with Grateful or Dead, a local organization working with people who use drugs.
Close to Olympic Plaza, John stops to hug one of the statues in the park. He is funny that way. Sitting on a bench at the Olympic Plaza, a guy in coveralls gets really excited about the food. He starts talking about how hard it is to find a place to sleep. You can feel his anger as he swears every couple of seconds. All three outreach workers listen. As we leave, they talk about the anger of the guy in coveralls and how partnering up to do outreach together promotes safety.
We get to the Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre, SORCe as everybody knows it. Here, people can access programs and services like housing, employment, and for their mental health and addiction issues. Waylon leaves a bunch of cards about his Strong Voices program, an HIV Community Link program dedicated to Aboriginal people. SORCe is a hub, a group of service providers that came together to help people navigate the system. All those behind the check-in desks are from these organizations and they take turns helping out with assessments and referrals. There are a lot of resources to read and take with you, so Waylon leaves even more about with information on where you can get tested for HIV. He also leaves free condoms, which he does everywhere he goes.
As we get closer to the Calgary Drop-In Centre, we can see a lot of people waiting to get in. They have a space inside where people looking for a place to sleep can wait, but that’s often full, Waylon explains. On a Friday outreach, Waylon usually meets with four or five of his clients that he offers case management to, whom Waylon spends a lot of his time with. He helps them with referrals, basic needs, housing applications and with anything that helps them meet their goals. Waylon encourages them to get treatment or to keep taking their meds for HIV. Waylon tells me that earlier this year, one of his long term homeless clients died from AIDS-related illnesses.
On the river pathway, John hands out three more food hampers to some young African guys sitting on a bench. Sometimes, Waylon and John load John’s truck and go further down the river, in parks, where homeless people set up camps, or in suburbs. “The homelessness is scattered all over the city. When winter comes, some of them leave for Vancouver and come back in the spring,” Waylon says. If it’s HIV prevention or basic needs like food and gloves, it all goes back to helping them. “Why do I do this? Because of redemption. I’m honouring the promise I made 17 years ago, when I was going through the 12-Step program. It’s like I’m being paid to give back,” he tells me.
We meet more people on our way through the downtown. Close to Stephen Ave, a homeless man is singing the buskers’ area, his busking permit visible in his guitar case. His dog is as friendly as he is and they both pose for a picture. Just a couple of steps down the road, a girl with her dog is playing a guitar with a broken string. She is really grateful for our help – she now has some transit tickets in the guitar case, and she opens a juice box offered by the outreach workers, gulping it down. But the girl is really worried that her dog is thirsty too, so Chelsea goes into one of the restaurants nearby and comes back with a plastic box full of clear water. The girl with the broken string gets the last of the ten food hampers. Our Friday outreach is over.