Crisis teams prepare to keep Edmonton's homeless safe during Stanley Cup playoffs
'We're all in this together in this playoff run,' inner-city agency says
With thousands of people planning to head into downtown Edmonton to cheer on the Oilers in the playoffs, work is underway to support the city's most vulnerable people living in the shadow of Rogers Place.
They may not be able to afford a ticket for a game inside the shiny new building, but these Edmontonians — some of whom face mental health and addictions issues — call the surrounding streets their home.
There haven't been any significant problems during big events at the arena so far, but inner city agencies want to make sure there are no issues during the playoffs either, considering the ugly riots during the Oilers' last playoff run in 2006.
Outreach teams to offer support on game nights
"We're not really sure what's going to happen with that, and the party atmosphere is going to change things as well," said Ed Major, a rescue van worker with the Hope Mission.
Two staff members will be doing outreach work from one of the rescue vans every game night. A team of two others will be on foot around the Rogers Place area.
"We want to make sure that the Edmonton Oilers fan that is experiencing homelessness feels safe and that they're welcomed into that environment," said Ryan Harding, the manager of the Hope Mission rescue vans.
We want to make sure that the Edmonton Oilers fan that is experiencing homelessness feels safe and that they're welcomed.- Ryan Harding, Hope Mission
Despite the spring weather, Harding said there are still many people who need help on the street with things like warm clothes, food and water, which are always available from the vans.
During a ride-along with CBC News, Major's handed out 25 bagged lunches within an hour and a half to people waving him down in his rescue van.
Some of his clients themselves are swept up in playoff fever, shouting "Go Oilers!"
During the last playoff run, games were at Northlands Coliseum and the big parties were held on Whyte Avenue. Nothing really changed for those living on the streets downtown.
This time, downtown will come alive like never before in recent memory.
"As two worlds collide, we want people to have an understanding of, 'Hey, we're all in this together in this playoff run and we can enjoy each other's company and not be nervous or scared of each other,'" Harding said.
See someone in trouble? Dial 211
The rescue vans are part of a 24/7 crisis diversion team program, which is a collaboration between organizations including the Hope Mission and Boyle Street Community Services.
They work around the clock helping people in trouble, which in turn frees up police and EMS to respond to genuine emergencies.
The vans, which are converted ambulances, often end up transporting those who are intoxicated on the street to the safety of downtown shelters.
But the long-term goal for the crisis team is to connect the people who need help with the services that can get them off the street, such as transitional housing and medical support.
"Our people, they have all suffered some degree of trauma," Major said. The key to gaining the trust of someone who is suffering is the approach, he added.
"One of the fellas I interacted with a bit this morning, I just gave him a hug and he said, 'How did you know I needed that?'" Major said.
But helping those living on the streets isn't the crisis diversion team's only mandate.
"If there is that Oiler fan who maybe has too many drinks and finds himself without cab fare and maybe his friends have ditched him, we're also going to serve that guy and get him home," Harding explained.
Many of the crisis team's calls for help come from police or EMS. But some also come in as tips through 211, a 24-hour referral line run by the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Harding says he's hoping those enjoying the excitement of the party atmosphere downtown will learn more about downtown Edmonton's homeless population, and that everyone can safely enjoy the playoff season.
Edmontonians who see anyone in trouble downtown are encouraged to call 211 and then press '3' to signal help is needed.