Inside the downtown Winnipeg patrol making connections step by step
From housing help to administering naloxone, program aims to improve health, safety of people downtown
It's a late September mid-afternoon and briefing time for the patrols from the Downtown Community Safety Partnership at their headquarters at the Air Canada Centre, on Winnipeg's Portage Avenue.
Most of the group sprawl in chairs for a series of notes from the supervisory team. While at first glance everyone seems pretty casual, there is something else in the air that's harder to pin down.
There is a sense of purpose.
Supervisors take turns with the agenda. There is encouragement to take ongoing training to use naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) to resuscitate people who are overdosing on opioids.
"A lot of us already have that skill but to be honest, sitting in on the training was super beneficial to a lot of us," Jasmine Kole, one of the team's outreach workers, tells the 20 or so team members at the meeting.
There are updates on individuals teams are working with in the downtown — the team call them "participants."
Today's briefing comes with word of a success — a couple who are getting a place to live.
"We just need to wait to hear from the landlord as to when we can get their keys," says Stephanie Johnson, who leads the partnership's COAR, or community outreach advocacy resource, team.
That victory gets a hearty round of applause.
Then some grim news.
A participant the community partnership has been working with is in the hospital and her body has shut down.
She is dying.
A plan is being developed to let the woman's friends on the street know and get one of them — John — to the hospital for what may be a last moment together.
"Nick is contact with the social worker and the charge nurse at the hospital, so please just redirect to myself or Nick if any questions come up" about the woman, Johnson tells the room.
Knowing the names of people the outreach organization works with is an important starting point in its gentle but continual triage with participants — building relationships one at a time and encouraging people to get identification, move into a shelter or work on addictions treatment.
The meeting bounces around — from some routine human resource matters to a warning not to go into Air Canada Park, outside their offices, alone.
It's become that volatile.
There is also word that a new and deadly mix of opioids — so called "green beans" — have appeared on the streets of downtown Winnipeg. The drug has already taken lives in some northern Manitoba communities.
Building relationships through patrols
As the meeting breaks, CBC is paired up with Aditya Sharma ("you can call me Addy") and Matthew Halchakar for a patrol.
The Downtown Safety Partnership, which started as a pilot project in 2019, is a collaboration between the City of Winnipeg, True North Sports and Entertainment, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, the Winnipeg Police Service and other stakeholders.
The 50-member team's aim is to improve the health, safety and well-being of people downtown through street outreach.
After the pilot project, the partnership got $5 million in funding from the provincial government last year to help establish it as a permanent non-profit organization. This past summer was the first the program operated on a permanent 24-7 basis.
As Sharma and Halchakar begin their patrol, true to the warning in the briefing, Air Canada Park is busy. The patrol passes by police, fire and paramedic crews working with someone in some sort of distress.
Walking down Hargrave Street, past the Canada Life Centre arena, Halchakar talks about how the teams start their outreach.
"Developing relationships with basically all of our community members is a huge part of what we do and our goal," he says.
"That way people are comfortable in approaching us, comfortable with accepting help — they just feel comfortable talking to us in general. That's one of our key goals, for sure."
The partnership's patrols have grown to include areas some wouldn't strictly consider "downtown," now encompassing the areas around the University of Winnipeg, The Forks, the Exchange District, and down Main Street to Higgins Avenue.
At least four or five units, each each made up of a pair of team members, are out at any given time. Night patrols use vehicles, but it's still a lot of geography to cover.
As Sharma and Halchakar's patrol continues, the conversation turns to reviving those who have overdosed. Both patrollers have naloxone kits and both have used the potentially life-saving medication.
Is that a heart-pounding moment?
"It absolutely is. Absolutely is," Sharma says.
"A lot of the times it's the aftereffects … when you realize what you've dealt with, and how important that moment is for us and for someone to be going through that."
Does that mean the work is scary?
"Not really scary," says Sharma. "But it's just the timing aspect of it. You just build to it."
The downtown partnership has carefully built safety protocols for engaging people in distress.
"Safety is always a No. 1 priority for ourselves and the community member — a person that we're helping," says Halchakar.
"So you have a policy on what to do in situations where it could be a danger. If we do need emergency services, we will call [them]. If we can use our training provided for us, we'll go forward doing that."
For issues like weapons calls, problems on roads that block traffic or obvious threats to the public, calls are made to police or paramedics.
Otherwise, building relationships comes through simple gestures — the patrols hand out water and snacks every day.
Eyes open in a maze of spaces
As the patrol continues, the team diverts off the sidewalk to check a spot that's sometimes used by participants. It's a tiny overhang of a wall of the Millennium Library — not even a metre high, with gravel underneath.
"See that piece of cardboard there? [People use that space] to get out of cold in the winter or the wind," Halchakar says, indicating a spot so small you'd have to crawl into it.
Keeping eyes open through the maze of tiny spaces all over the downtown is another part of the patrols' daily routine.
"You can see there are a lot of little alleys and a lot of confined spaces where we'd like to check up on people," says Sharma.
The tour stop for a moment as he gets on the radio to report a discarded syringe on the sidewalk. Finding needles is a regular occurrence, and there is a protocol in place to dispose of them safely.
Layers of outreach
The downtown safety partnership is organized in three different crews.
There are the MAC247 — or mobile assistance and connect 24-7 — teams, like the one CBC followed, which essentially form the front line of the partnership.
Then there is the "connect" team, which works directly with participants on the street to sort out issues such as getting ID or moving to safe housing.
And finally, the COAR, or community outreach advocacy resource team, does followup with participants and works with partner agencies in housing, addictions treatment, education and mental health.
By mid-summer, the three teams had done 2,000 well-being checks over the past year, along with over 100 medical assistance events and more than 450 housing referrals.
Down the street from the Air Canada Centre, nearing the end of CBC's tour, Sharma and Halchakar see one of the participants they are working with.
With a gentle touch, they continue their effort with someone who has shown interest in getting some help.
"[It] started off [by] saying, 'How's the day going?' — make sure they are OK, asking if there is anything we can support them with," says Halchakar.
"Then, with this specific participant, I asked if they wanted to talk about their plan … and they agreed and we went a little bit to the side so we could have a private conversation, and we spoke about it."
The work the patrols do is complicated.
But the partnership believes the solution requires simple gestures of respect and attempts to preserve people's dignity, combined with a relentless effort to solve issues of addictions, mental health and homelessness that are spread across the downtown.
The challenge is on nearly every sidewalk.