Edmonton expands transit outreach program to improve safety, help vulnerable people

The City of Edmonton is expanding a program that helps vulnerable people at transit centres. 

City is adding 2 Community Outreach Transit Teams for a total of 7

Two people check on someone in an LRT station.
Transit outreach teams circulate LRT and bus stations 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to check on people needing shelter and social supports. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

The City of Edmonton is expanding a program that helps vulnerable people at transit centres. 

Community Outreach Transit Teams (COTT), where a social worker is paired with a transit peace officer, connect people to shelters, mental health and addictions programs, medical appointments and housing services. 

The Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society runs the program, which started as a pilot in September 2021 with two teams.

The contract was set to expire this August. Monday, city council's community and public services committee agreed to extend the contract for $2.1 million until Aug. 31, 2026.

In the first year, the teams logged 2700 general interactions with people and 510 engagements where teams made specific referrals. 

Jenna Pilot, the city's supervisor of community safety, told the committee they have learned a lot since the program's inception. 

"I think the pilot showed us where we need to be, when we need to be, how much more we're needed," Pilot said. "It showed us more of the significant gaps in our social system."

In 10 months, the teams helped 250 individuals with ongoing follow-up support, using 30 different agencies or services that clients were physically connected to. 

Since November 2021, the teams were unable to respond to 115 incidents because they didn't have enough capacity. 

The Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society was selected in a single-source procurement in July 2021. 

Under city regulations, any single-source contract over $1 million must have committee approval. 

Recruiting challenges

The city approved the extension of the program as part of the 2023-2026 operating budget.

The teams circulate transit stations seven days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 2 a.m. 

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow, said they've had challenges hiring two new full-time social workers. 

"Across the sector, it has been very difficult to recruit people in the sector for a variety of reasons and so this has been no different," Whiskeyjack told the committee. 

In hiring the specialized positions, she said they want to exercise due diligence. 

"We've been really sort of taking our time to make sure we get the right people in the right place."

Bent Arrow is hoping to hire the workers as soon as possible, she added. 

Safer for all

Jennifer Flaman, the city's deputy manager of community services, said the COTT program has three long-term outcomes.

"That marginalized people are connected to long-term sustainable supports," she told the committee. "That there's improved safety and well-being of city staff working on and around the transit system and an increased sense of rider safety and enhanced ridership experience."

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said while the program also aims to improve overall transit safety, the focus is to help homeless people and those with addictions and mental health struggles. 

"We want to make sure that transit — the city — is safe for everyone, including our public transit for users," Sohi said. "But there's a lot of vulnerability out there for people who we're trying to help." 


Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.