Regina's White Pony Lodge celebrates 1-year anniversary

White Pony Lodge, a citizen-led group that patrols Regina's North Central neighbourhood, just celebrated its one-year anniversary.

Turning patrols into crisis response teams and securing funding among goals for coming year

A core group of eight to 10 volunteers usually set out on White Pony Lodge's weekend street patrols. (Stephanie Taylor/CBC)

Mary Arpin remembers it was an early spring patrol when a man approached their group saying a woman was in trouble.

As a member of White Pony Lodge — a grassroots organization of citizens who patrol Regina's North Central neighbourhood — Arpin explained some people have come to see them as caretakers of the community.

In this case, the man alerted volunteers to a woman who was passed out in a back lane.

"He thought maybe somebody would rob her," Arpin recalled.

You can never say whether or not we prevented something from happening, but the potential is there.- White Pony Lodge patrol volunteer Mary Arpin

Eventually, when volunteers did the find the woman, they called emergency services because she wasn't responsive.

She didn't want to go to hospital, Arpin recalled, and after paramedics finished checking her vitals, volunteers walked her home.

"Possibly a situation was avoided. We never know.

"You can never say whether or not we prevented something from happening, but the potential is there," she said.

Shawna Oochoo, president and patrol co-ordinator of White Pony Lodge. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

'Overwhelming' community response

Creating a safer place to live was the only expectation the patrol group's co-founder and president, Shawna Oochoo, had when they set out on their first walk last June.

"We didn't really know what the reaction from the community would be like," she said, sitting in the group's new headquarters on Angus Street.

The group was formed in response to the spring 2016 killing of  26-year-old Joshua Harden. Four boys were charged in his death, including three under the age of 18. 

Patrolling the streets was seen as a way to take back the neighbourhood, Oochoo explained.

"We're just breaking down a lot of labels and stereotypes."

More than a year later, a group of roughly 10 volunteers has become a regular sight on Friday and Saturday evenings on North Central's streets.

Each evening around 6 p.m., the patrol begins with people divided on either side of a street, picking up items considered a hazard to the neighbourhood's residents — in particular children — such as needles, condoms and weapons.

New volunteer Caitlyn Gallagher called her first patrol with White Pony Lodge a 'breakthrough' moment. Before each walk, volunteers gather in a circle to smudge and go over the rules. (Stephanie Taylor/CBC)

'Breakthrough' patrol experience 

Oochoo said one of the positives since the group's inception has been watching new volunteers join the patrol and experience the feeling of making the neighbourhood safer, and instilling residents with a sense of pride.

Caitlyn Gallagher is one of the newest volunteers.

This past Friday was the real-estate agent's second patrol. She explained she sees people avoiding buying property in the neighbourhood because of its reputation. 

She called her first walk with the group a "breakthrough" moment.

"I maybe used to be one of those people that was a little bit scared of this neighbourhood and the people in it."

Patrols pick up needles and other drug paraphernalia, like arm bands. (Stephanie Taylor/CBC)

Funding needed

Oochoo said the biggest challenge for White Pony Lodge continues to be ensuring the group has a long-term place in the community.

"It's been a struggle to actually get established," she said.

"To keep the doors open it does cost money, and sometimes we don't have that."

The patrol recently moved into its Angus Street space and is on a month-to-month lease, after spending the previous nine months operating out of the AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan headquarters.

Oochoo said the group has no core funding. They rely upon donations to cover the cost of equipment and rent.

Ward councillor Joel Murray said making the group a community fixture is a priority, saying it has had an "overwhelming positive" effect on neighbourhood safety. He said he's working to find a way for White Pony Lodge to qualify for one of the city's community grants.

Volunteers report the location of abandoned homes and vacant lots to the city's bylaw enforcement branch. (Stephanie Taylor/CBC)

Building relationships with police

For now, Oochoo said it feels good to be able to provide a resource for someone who may not call police for whatever reason.

"If people don't feel safe going to the police, they can come to us."

"With an Indigenous community primarily, there's a lot of distrust just because of the history that is there and what we like to do is to try and help rebuild that."

Regina Police Service Cpl. Sheri Wild agrees the group's presence is helping the service build better relationships with community members because patrols are vocal about their organization's partnership with police.

"Some of them are well known within the community as well, and so people are a little more comfortable with talking to them as opposed to a police officer," Wild explained.

According to Regina Police statistics, over the past 12 months, North Central saw the most crime in the city. (Regina Police Service)

She said it's difficult to measure the impact the patrols have had on crime reduction, but believes their presence can stop crimes of opportunity.

"They have a small footprint on the larger issues in North Central, which is still helpful," she said.

They have a small footprint on the large issues in North Central.- Regina Police Service Cpl. Sheri Wild

"For us, in the amount of weapons, needles — all of the stuff that they are picking up is helpful for us because that's less opportunity for somebody then to get poked with a needle or find a weapon in the alley and then use it in a crime."

Wild added the organization has helped police locate several missing persons. 

White Pony Lodge members say people commonly talk to them about issues in the neighbourhood or their own lives. (Stephanie Taylor/CBC)

'Maybe he'll join us'

Going forward, Oochoo said she wants to establish a regular revenue stream in order to expand the group's mandate and services.

By the next anniversary, Oochoo hopes the patrol volunteers will be trained as crisis response teams.

She also wants to start offering programs for at-risk youth.

As for volunteers, it seems they'll find White Pony Lodge.

Less than an hour into the group's Friday night patrol, a man appeared from a yard and started talking to several volunteers.

Arpin explained the man said he had been attacked downtown the previous night, hit with a pipe and wooden bar. He was hospitalized and is now healing.

"He asked about what we were doing and patrolling with us," she said.

"So [I] gave him some information and when he's healed up, maybe he'll join us."