Downtown health centre gets a facelift thanks to unique cleanup crew

On Thursday the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre began a physical transformation to make it a cleaner, safer space. The cleanup was organized by the social navigator program.

Hamilton's social navigator program came up with a plan to let people clean the area they use

On Thursday the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre began a physical transformation to make it a cleaner, safer space. The cleanup was organized by the Social Navigator program — a team that's made up of a full-time paramedic, officer and program coordinator. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

The walls outside of Hamilton's inner city health centre, Urban Core were covered in graffiti, the exterior lighting, poor. And and the surrounding bushes allowed people to do drugs. 

On Thursday the centre began a much-needed facelift.

It wasn't an average cleanup crew though. Those with paintbrushes in hand included users of the centre, located on Rebecca Street and people involved in the Hamilton police social navigator program, a program assisting people in need of vital services. 

They wanted to give back to a centre that had helped them.

Erik Kenyon of Hamilton is one of them. 

Kenyon is part of the social navigator program. He was painting the walls because he says he wanted to give back to the program that has given him so much.

"For some people this is where they sleep. Now that it's all cleaned up and painted, it's kind of like worth coming home to," he said. 

A different message

Denise Brooks, executive director of the centre says it needed a facelift. 

"This is a community health centre and we're here to reach out to people who experience barriers to health, so we want it to be a place where people can feel safe, where it's more open, where there's a lot more light shinning here," said Brooks.

Hamilton’s inner city health centre, Urban Core Community Health Centre, is located on Rebecca Street. This year it became home to the city's first supervised injection site. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

The centre is a non-profit agency and offers various health services like oral health, chiropractic services and street drops in, among others.

It recently became home to Hamilton's first supervised injection site — and according to the centre, it's been making a difference in saving lives.

The centre's executive director says the outside needed a "different message" though.

"We've had a lot of graffiti — some from gangs and others it seems and it's causing an appearance of the centre that we don't want," she said.

Walls once covered in graffiti were given a fresh coat of white paint Thursday morning. 

Making it more safe, more enjoyable 

The social navigator program refers "at risk" people and those who've had multiple interactions with police to the appropriate health and social services instead of dealing with them criminally. It's been around for five years.

We're making it more safe, more enjoyable, more welcoming for people that utilize this building.- Const. Pete Wiesner 

A full-time paramedic, police officer and program coordinator make up the program.

Const. Pete Wiesner is the sole police officer.

"I want to reach out with people now and give them a positive interaction with police as opposed to a negative," said Wiesner. 

He says they've been getting a lot requests from management of Urban Core, indicating that they're having a lot of issues with homeless people, vandalism, and drug use on the outside of the building.

"What we're doing is cleaning it up to make it to make it more welcoming to everybody that utilizes the Urban Core here," said Wiesner.

"We're making it more safe, more enjoyable, more welcoming for people that utilize this building."

Const. Pete Wiesner of the Social Navigator program says they've been getting a lot requests from management of Urban Core, indicating that they're having a lot of issues with homeless people, vandalism, and drug use on the outside of the building. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Wiesner reached out the people he's been working with — those in need of housing, drug treatment and sustainable income — among the list — and asked them if they wanted to come out and give back to the community.

The program saved my life- Erik Kenyon

"The way we look at it is we have our people, past clients, give back to the community. Word gets out on the street about how they put time and effort into making a block within their city, a building within their city, a little bit more beautiful," said Wiesner.

Giving back

It's been 11 months since Kenyon last used heroin.

He says his life took a downward turn when health issues benched him from playing hockey and sports, putting him into depression.

He met a girl who he started using heroin with, began to sell meth to support his drug use, eventually landing him in trouble with the law.

Kenyon says he originally didn't care to participate in the program until Wiesner "kicked" him into gear.

The Hamilton man now has a home, a job, and a figure that he was eager to pose for a photo with the officer who once told him he was going to jail.

"The program saved my life. Pete in particular saved my life," said Kenyon. "He basically just gave me the motivation and made me feel like I was important because I never had anybody."

We're very grateful that people care so much about the place that they can feel that it's part of their home too. - Denise Brooks, executive director,  Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre

By helping with the cleanup, Kenyon says he feels like he's returning the favour.

"It just makes me feel good, like I'm doing something for somebody."

Erik Kenyon of Hamilton stands beside Const. Pete Wiesner (left). Kenyon credits the social navigator program and the officer for saving saving his life. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Brooks says those using the services are always willing to help out.

"We're very grateful that people care so much about the place that they can feel that it's part of their home too and they want to contribute to making something happen," said Brooks. 

The cleanup was dubbed "the first annual cleanup your hood event."

Thursday was the first day of the cleanup. Wiesner says next week they're going to try to get murals painted on the new blank canvas.

He says maybe in a year they'll have another property to work on.

laura.clementson@cbc.ca