A night with Windsor's mobile outreach van
The publicly funded van provides service to Windsor's most vulnerable five nights a week
It's 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and the branded Assisted Living Southwestern Ontario (ALSO) van sits parked behind the public library in downtown Windsor. It recently rained and the air is still humid as the sun sets.
The Mobile Outreach and Support Team (MOST) van opens its side doors, waiting for the evening's first visitors. The service runs in partnership with Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, Canadian Mental Health Services, Family Services Windsor-Essex, ALSO and Windsor's municipal government.
It takes a little while, but regular Paul Wayvonko soon walks up and says hello. He's been in Windsor for three years, but says he grew up in Barrie, Ont. in the care of Children's Aid.
Wayvonko says he likes the support the MOST van gives him.
"It's been great, because it makes you feel that you're not alone and regardless of what questions you might throw at them, if they don't have it, at least they're honest and say, 'Well we'll try to get the answers,'" Wayvonko says.
After 10 minutes, he's ready to leave with some water, snacks and a fresh pair of socks.
"I'm sure there's always somebody that needs help," he says. "And I'm sure these wonderful ladies have helped a lot of people since they've been here. I know they've helped me a great deal."
Wayvonko's not wrong about the help provided by the van.
The MOST van had 1,716 visitors between Jan. 31 and July 31, 2019, with men accounting for an estimated 75 per cent of visitors.
Additionally, compared to the end of April, when an estimated 43 per cent of visitors were unknown clients, only 29 per cent of visitors were unknown by the end of July.
Food and supplies remain the top priority, followed by people seeking immediate shelter and requests for permanent housing.
Statistics shared by MOST also indicate nearly one-quarter of visitors to the van sought out mental health and addiction services, while approximately 13 per cent sought out medical care.
It's now 9 p.m. and as the streetlights illuminate the library's parking lot, MOST workers are ready to pack up for the day. Before they can leave, Mark Behrens and his dog Nikita stop in to get shampoo and soap.
Behrens was previously living on his friend's couch, but recently got his own place and was reunited with his pet.
"They got me through," he said. "I had nothing and even having a shower was a struggle. I occasionally would ask a friend if I could use their shower, but I didn't want to use their supplies. So having my own stuff to use was pretty important."
Things have gotten better for Behrens — especially now that he's back with his dog. Having the MOST van near him allowed him to talk to people he felt connected to about any of the issues he was going through.
"They remember my name and remember what I said, so they actually do listen and it's good to have someone to talk to once in a while," said Behrens. "Get stuff off your chest and they're pretty good at it."
Lori Tempesta, a community support worker with Canadian Mental Health Association, has worked in mental health services for 13 years. She says being part of the mobile unit has opened her eyes to things she never fully realized.
"There's a lot of homelessness and I don't think we see it all," says Tempesta.
When the van first started in late January, she said there would be a crowd of people trying to get services.
"Because there's never been a service like this before," Tempesta said. "That's been actually on the road at night time trying to go and help."
In addition to a community support worker, a psychiatrist will join the fold later this fall.
As another night comes to an end, some MOST workers suggest that fewer people visited the van than expected.
Some suggest the lower visitor numbers are a result of the van's presence near the well-lit library. Others suggest that lower turnout this evening is a result of the fact that other stops, like Glengarry, are seeing an increase in visitors.
Regardless, MOST will be back at it the next night, helping whomever they can.