In Edmonton's transit stations, outreach teams are bringing help — and hope — to people in need
‘My big mouth gets me in trouble a lot of times; this time it actually helped’
On a Friday afternoon in Edmonton's Central LRT station, two members of the Community Outreach Transit Team check each entrance and staircase to see if there is anyone camped out in a corner.
They find a woman sitting on the tile floor, a hood covering her face. Used naloxone kits are scattered on the ground next to her.
She doesn't answer clearly when the COTT workers ask if someone has recently overdosed there. But after they offer her chocolate and water, she warms up. She asks them about how to get her belongings back from the Edmonton Remand Centre. She was recently released from the centre.
Eventually the COTT workers realize they've met her before and tell her how much she's changed since the last time they saw her.
"Someone who is addicted, or who is using, you can see them diminishing. Their hair is messy or their clothes are ratted up," said outreach worker Mariah Eshkakogan. "But she looks great, considering [that] before she was barely able to talk.
"I didn't even recognize her voice."
"Our first interaction she didn't want to talk to us," said Kokilan Thamilselvan, the peace officer working with Eshkakogan. "She'd usually tell us to f--k off."
He said after they met the woman several times and brought her warm clothes they built up trust.
"Sometimes people just want to talk and have their voices heard. That's usually how it is with her," Thamilselvan said.
Outreach in the LRT
The COTT initiative pairs an outreach worker from Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society with a city peace officer. A pilot, modelled after a Calgary program, launched last October. It created two teams to patrol LRT stations on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In February, Edmonton city council approved a $3.9-million transit safety plan that included expanding COTT to seven teams.
The city plans to have them in action later this summer, which would allow COTT to add overnight and weekend hours.
Pressure to address safety concerns on transit has escalated in recent months. In late April, a 78-year-old hospital worker was seriously injured when a stranger pushed her onto the tracks at the Health Sciences/Jubilee LRT station.
Police data shows that as of May 30, officers had been called to LRT stations and transit centres 682 times this year, with more than half of those calls related to violence, weapons and disorder.
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The need for services has also increased. The city estimates Edmonton's homeless population has doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of drug poisoning deaths has also increased dramatically.
Peace officer James Hopchin said he has to use naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid poisoning nearly every day — a big increase from when he started the job three years ago.
Steven Siminick said he was homeless and collecting bottles when he saw COTT members at an LRT station with bold Community Outreach Transit Team lettering on their vests.
"What do you guys do?" he asked. "And they proceeded to actually do something."
"My big mouth gets me in trouble a lot of times; this time it actually helped," he said.
An outreach worker helped Siminick complete paperwork to receive AISH payments and get him into a detox program. He said he's dealt with alcohol addiction since age 14. He's now staying in a motel while searching for more stable housing.
'People feel safe'
On May 26, the province amplified many transit riders' safety concerns when Justice Minister Tyler Shandro directed the city to develop a public safety plan for downtown and on transit.
Eshkakogan said many of the people COTT meets look to transit stations for their own safety.
"Stations have a lot of cameras," she said.
"There are security guards that walk around the building, there's people commuting by foot, by bus or by train and a lot of times I think people feel safe when there are a lot of people around."
She said it may feel more secure for people who worry about having their belongings stolen or being attacked if they are in a park or a back alley.
Beyond transit stations
COTT begins its work inside transit stations, but team members routinely spend hours, even entire days, working with clients outside of them.
On May 27, outreach worker Robert Solem and peace officer Hopchin drove to meet a client at a McDonald's on 118th Avenue.
In the parking lot, Solem spoke to the woman about what documentation she needed to get a new ID and sort out her finances after losing her home.
"It's making things more manageable mentally," said COTT client Tania Calliou. "I've never been homeless and I'm 46.
Thamilselvan said that on his first day on the job, he and Eshkakogan found a woman underneath a mattress on a path next to the LRT.
At first she didn't want help and didn't feel she deserved it. But after they had spoken to her, they brought her to the Bissell Centre for a shower and helped her get medication from a pharmacy and start a detox program.
Eshkakogan even attended psychology appointments with her when she asked.
"Every time she'll texts us and let us know, 'I've been seven months sober ... eight months sober,'" he said.
"I'll look at [Eshkakogan] and say 'OK, so I guess we've been working for eight months now.'"