A day in a not-so-average job: riding along with Street Outreach

·6 min read

During the week, Chloe Duval works as a teacher's assistant at Range Lake North School, but on weekends, she puts on a mask, blue surgical gloves and an orange safety vest.

The vest says 'Street Outreach.'

The concept is simple, Duval said — get a phone call, pick up a client and drop them off. But it's hard to describe an average shift, because no two shifts are ever the same.

"It depends on the day and it depends on how intoxicated the clients are … it's kind of unpredictable," Duval said during a four-hour Saturday afternoon shift.

Hitting the streets in 2017, the Yellowknife Street Outreach team was established as a way to address the needs of the vulnerable and homeless population. The outreach team takes calls that previously went to the RCMP and EMS, for issues such as public intoxication or someone sleeping outside.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yellowknife streets are less bustling than they used to be but the outreach team has remained busy.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

Need a ride?

At 12:02 p.m., the first call comes through.

It is -36 C with the windchill and someone needs to pick up a prescription. There is no time to grab a coffee.

"Once we get a call, we go and pick up the client and drive them somewhere safe, like a shelter or their home ... then we patrol the streets," she explains.

They do a quick run to the women's shelter, the pharmacy and back. Duval said day shifts can be slower than evening shifts but still come with their challenges.

"If we see someone passed out or in need of help, we stop and try our best to help them out," she Duval.

Waking up someone who is sleeping or passed out intoxicated is not always easy but the team has their tricks.

If we see someone passed out or in need of help, we stop and try our best to help them out. - Chloe Duval, Yellowknife Street Outreach worker

Similar to what emergency services personnel will do, street outreach workers will press on a pressure point on a person's body to jar them awake, such as a spot behind the earlobe or pressing into a nail bed. Some techniques are a little too rough for Street Outreach coordinator Kimberly Gagnon's liking though. She prefers the sternum rub — knuckles rubbed along the sternum while saying a person's name.

"I've tried the nail bed and busted someone's nail before and that was the grossest feeling in the world — I'll never do that again … the one I like the most is the sternum rub just because the chances of actually hurting someone is less," Gagnon says over coffee before the ride along.

There are hidden spots around Yellowknife where the team knows to patrol.

It might be the trails, out of the public eye, where people go to drink or take drugs, or spots in the bush where tents are set up as a shield from the elements.

The goal is to make sure people are safe and know they have an option for a non-judgmental ride, somewhere safe.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

'There's a lot going on in their lives'

At 12:45 p.m., the second call comes in.

There is a client at the drop-in centre who is ready to go to the Arnica Inn, an inn turned into transitional housing.

Duval said most of their clients have troubled backgrounds.

"With all the trauma that goes on and looking at history, there's a lot going on in their lives," she said.

There is a lot of healing to be done, Gagnon said.

"Because we don't have the proper organization in trying to help individuals deal with their mental health issues or mental illness, they end up trying to treat themselves via drugs or alcohol — or it's the only thing they've ever seen," she said.

Pulling up to the Arnica Inn, the two men in the back of the van get excited.

"We're home, we're home," they say with a laugh. "Thank you ladies."

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

Challenges on the road

At 1:15 p.m., another call comes in. It is the second call to let the team know there are intoxicated people in and around a business on Franklin Ave.

There are times when the outreach team is on the receiving end of abusive phone calls because bystanders or business owners are upset clients are still downtown, but the team can only transport clients who want to go. No one is ever forced to get in the van.

There was one time a client said the team kidnapped her and threatened charges, but the team picked her up again two hours later, Gagnon said.

The practice is not to ban people from rides, a practice the Street Outreach coordinator would like to see at the shelters throughout the city.

"What the organizations need to realize is people have addictions issues … if they punched a staff member in the arm, banning them for three months isn't teaching them a lesson," she said.

Picking up a client who is banned from all the shelters is not only hard for the team, but also for the client.

Not having a place to go in sub-zero temperatures can be also dangerous, even fatal.

The team has ways to find places for now, but would like to see long-term solutions.

[Being exposed to COVID-19] is the biggest fear for all of us, myself included. - Kimberley Gagnon, Street Outreach coordinator

COVID-19 is an added challenge during the pandemic.

While hand sanitizer was already a staple for the team, masks and gloves are now mandatory following public health guidelines.

The outreach workers are also worried about their own exposure risk.

"[Being exposed to COVID-19] is the biggest fear for all of us, myself included ... so I'm very happy a lot of clients have gotten at least their first set of vaccines," Gagnon said.

There has been no transmission of COVID-19 through outreach rides to date.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

By 2 p.m., the ride along is over and it's time to train a new driver.

Operating from noon to midnight every day of the week, the team is a mix of full-time and casual workers.

In the same way the clients range, so do the drivers.

The youngest driver is 18 and the oldest driver is 75, Gagnon explains. Some drivers are teachers, some are nurses, one is a pilot.

"It's all people that either have a desire to help the homeless population or have had issues of substance use and abuse in the past themselves, so they want to help," she says.

Duval started driving the van almost eight months ago when her boss mentioned the team needed drivers.

With previous experience in youth shelters, Duval said she stayed on because she believes in the work the team is doing.

"It's a really fun job for the most part," she says after.

"These clients, they change you in a positive way."

If you see an individual who seems to be in distress but is not committing a crime or in need of urgent medical care in Yellowknife, call 867-445-7202.