'I love this town': New Thompson community patrol walks not just for safety, but to spread kindness

The North of 55 Patrol, run by volunteers who want to help their hometown, brings food, water and clothing to homeless people in Thompson, Man.

North of 55 Patrol started in May to help homeless, curb violence in northern Manitoba city

Holly Gossfeld started the North of 55 Patrol in May in Thompson, Man. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

It's a warm Tuesday night in June, and members of Thompson's new walking patrol are chatting as they trickle into the local McDonald's.

They're about to head out for a two-hour walk through the northern Manitoba city, weighed down with two cases of bottled water, a box of clothing and a backpack full of homemade bannock.

None of the provisions are for themselves.

It's all for the people they're about to check in on — homeless or hard-up folks spending their evening on the streets.

"It makes me feel good. I like what we do," said Holly Gossfeld, who started the North of 55 Street Patrol in May in the city of nearly 13,000, about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

"It's my hometown," she said. "I love this town."

Gossfeld started the group in early May, with the vision of creating a community foot patrol group similar to Winnipeg's Bear Clan.

Since then, she said the group has grown steadily in size and support, and added on a safe-ride service to help people get home safely, or help those with mobility problems get around the city.

The group has no formal funding so far — many of the items they distribute or use, including their bright orange vests, have been donated by other community members and businesses.

Aaron Brown, 17, has been part of the North of 55 Patrol since it started in May. He tries to walk every day, for up to six hours at a time. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

On the Tuesday night patrol CBC followed, she was joined by six others. Some, like Aaron Brown, 17, have been part of the group from the beginning.

The teen tries to walk every day, he said, for up to six hours at a time.

"I think our community should be safe. I only joined this because I've been through violence, and I know how it is. I tried stopping it before, but it didn't work," he said.

"I wanted to be part of it because there was too much violence going on. And I just really wanted to make a change."

'I grew up the way they grew up'

In May, Thompson's mayor, Colleen Smook, warned citizens in the city to be on guard after a string of apparently random stabbings. Three people were hospitalized in one night after being stabbed by youths, RCMP said on May 30.

The following week, RCMP requested public assistance to find two suspects, 17 and 19, after three violent attacks in three days.

Gossfeld said she started the group this spring after noticing more crime in the city last summer. But she said she's more focused on all the good she sees in her city.

"That's what we're trying to highlight," she said.

Jordan Colombe, a volunteer with North of 55 Patrol, brought his young son along for part of the walk. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

From their start in Thompson's city centre that Tuesday night, the patrol group made its way through the city. Brown and another volunteer picked up litter as they went.

They approach the people they see spending their evening on the streets, making conversation and offering food, water and clothing. Many of them are familiar faces who recognize the group, Gossfeld said.

"There's so much negativity towards … homeless people. I hate seeing that," said Tracey Clemons, 28. She's been involved with the group since the beginning, and helps run its safe-ride service.

"They are people too. They have their own stories," she said. "There's reasons why they're here."

Many of the people they help have been impacted by the legacy of residential schools,  Gossfeld said, like her own family. Some are Thompson residents, while others come to the city from the surrounding communities.

"Some of them have really nice homes back home, and they just get lost in their addictions here," Clemons said.

The group walked through Thompson for two hours on one Tuesday evening in June, handing out water, food and clothing along the way. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Another volunteer, Jordan Colombe, said he wants to help because of his own experience with addictions. The father of four used to be part of a patrol group in his home community of Cross Lake and was excited to be part of Thompson's version.

"I feel bad for other people. I grew up the way they grew up. I used to be an alcoholic, used to be a drug addict. I got off that," he said. "I just want to show people that you can do it, for yourself."

'A little family'

As they walk, the members of the group chat and laugh with each other. They check in on a man sleeping on a boulevard and offer him water and bannock. At one point, an SUV pulls over and the passenger hops out to give the group a case of bottled water in a gesture of support.

Gossfeld said she's loved building relationships with the volunteers, some of whom are people she wouldn't have met otherwise.

"We're like an odd pack, just like a little family or something," she said, laughing.

Volunteers with the North of 55 Patrol are like a family, said Holly Gossfeld, second from left. She's seen here, left to right, with Kiya Spence, Tracey Clemons (holding her daughter), Aaron Brown and Crystal Sayies. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

In the future, Gossfeld said she hopes to offer more youth programming, like sports events or trips to nearby Paint Lake.

Clemons said she hopes recent media attention for their group will bring more support for them and the people they help.

"Hopefully this gets us noticed, and gets them noticed," she said.

"I feel like they've been pushed on the back burner. There's nothing here for them."