Hamilton police and emergency services street program 'navigates' the path back

Hamilton program helps at-risk individuals get on with their lives.
Hamilton Police's Sgt. Jay Turner Social Navigator Pat O'Neill were in the downtown core Thursday tweeting about the Social Navigation project. (Kaleigh Rogers/CBC)

When facing overwhelming obstacles, it helps to have a friendly face. For the at-risk individuals in Hamilton’s downtown, that friendly face is Pat O’Neill.

Hamilton paramedic O’Neill is the sole administrator of the Social Navigator Program, a pilot program through the Hamilton Police Services and EMS paramedics that works with at-risk individuals to help sync them up with the services available to help them break the crime cycle.

"We’re trying to engage them in their own care," O’Neill said.

The program is funded through the Provincial Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy and new clients are targeted as police and paramedics identify individuals whom they continually encounter.

At-risk individuals are those who continually show up in police custody or emergency care. They are re-offenders who aren't deterred by constant arrests, fines and jail time. Police recognized there needed to be another option for individuals for whom the judicial system just wasn't working, so they created the navigator program to end the cycle and get these individuals the help they need.

But it’s not as simple as pointing them in the right direction, as Hamilton police Sgt. Jay Turner found out Thursday morning when he rode along and live-tweeted O’Neill’s daily activities.

"It gave me a whole new appreciation for (O’Neill)," Turner said. "In the first 45 minutes we were down at the YMCA, to Mission Services, the Salvation Army and back to the YMCA."

Much of the morning was spent making sure clients who had important meetings were up on time, had something to eat and were ready to go. One client had a doctor’s appointment for an assessment as part of his application for assistance through the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Tasks that seem simple to the average person — making appointments, mailing application forms, even getting up in the morning — become increasingly difficult when people’s lives have been affected by addiction and mental illness, O’Neill explained.

"For some people it’s hard to process all the information," he said. "If you’ve been on the street for a long time and you’ve been chronically hit hard by life’s little antics, it takes you down and you just turn off."

According to Turner, the program has seen much success, with 28 clients "navigated" and able to access services independently. He said he hopes those who have achieved success will pass the message on to their peers.

"Once we get a lot of success stories, people will start to talk to each other and hopefully be able to move up through the system."

Part of the program’s success lies in O’Neill himself. Many at-risk individuals have a distrust of police, but feel comfortable interacting with a paramedic, Turner said.

The pilot program is set to continue through 2013, at which point an independent review board will access its success and determine whether or not its worth continued efforts.

Until then, O’Neill will continue his beat on the street, working to make a small difference in the daily lives of his clients.

"It’s something very challenging but very rewarding."