The Alberta government is placing social workers at West Edmonton Mall in an attempt to reach out to some of the high-risk teenagers who frequent the giant shopping centre.
The social workers make drop-in visits to the Boys & Girls Club at the mall, trying to build relationships and offer support to the youth who gather there. The club offers a hot meal each night for about 30 teenagers between the ages 15 and 19.
By keeping their visits informal, social workers hope the teens will come to trust them.
"They see us willing to go for a coffee in the mall or play a game of pool with them and not necessarily having an agenda," said Erin Isiah, a caseworker and the manager of the project. "We're just getting to know them as an individual."
Social workers say the approach seems to be working because some of the teenagers have sought out caseworkers for advice.
Peter Smith, a worker with the high-risk youth unit of Children's Services, said it is important for the workers to proceed cautiously.
"They want to see if we're for real or whether we're just going to be in and out of their lives," he said. " [That] is part of what they have come to use as survival skills, being on their own and being on the street."
The project will run until next March and may become permanent if it is deemed a success.