Heading out to help folks on the downtown streets each night of the year brings a steady stream of challenges – but a tremendous sense of fulfillment to Turning Point staff involved with the groundbreaking program.
NightReach is a mobile outreach initiative that operates primarily in Red Deer’s downtown.
Teams of two walk the streets and paths 365 evenings a year with backpacks full of harm reduction materials, seasonal clothing, first aid supplies and the occasional food donation.
It’s all about providing non-judgmental support, practical help and referrals to help for everything from housing, food, health care and addictions to name a few.
Kevin Cunningham knows firsthand what it’s like to survive on the streets. These days, he takes that raw experience and serves others by helping connect with folks on the street in Red Deer.
“Working with NightReach, we hand out safer sex supplies, food, snacks, clothing, winter gear and harm reduction supplies. When I think about what it would be like for people out there without this service, that’s a pretty terrifying thought,” he said, adding that teams also clean up needle debris as well.
“Also, what more could be done?
“Myself coming through this, I’ve realized how small things can have such a big impact for people who have lost a lot in their lives and who are suffering through pain,” he added. “A granola bar, a conversation – moments matter. Words matter. Connection with people matters. When they are out there, just having someone else there and knowing we are in their corner. It’s about having someone to talk to – someone to ask questions.
“When I was out there nine years ago in Calgary, I wasn’t approached by a night-reacher – it was everyone looking after themselves. There are street moms and street dads who assume that role, but having NightReach in Red Deer is a fantastic, helpful thing for people out there who don’t have a lot.”
Looking back on his life on the streets, Cunningham noted that luckily, fentanyl wasn’t a crisis back then.
“I’m thankful for that.”
Currently, it’s becoming a much bigger issue. “We get the reported reversals from clients out there on the streets, and that’s just the reported ones. A lot of people don’t know to report them to us.”
Stacey Carmichael, Turning Point’s executive director, noted that in terms of numbers of those on the streets, things spike in the spring as the provision of local shelter beds plunges.
“So it will get busier in the summer. Not only just because it’s nicer out, but because there are significantly fewer options.”
Meanwhile, the mission continues but society’s misgivings and misconceptions persist.
“The biggest misconception that comes up right away for me is that it’s a choice people are making, that it’s a moral failure. But the further one gets to know these people and starts to interact, you see it’s not a moral failure; it’s not a choice,” said Cunningham.
“It really is life circumstances that compile. A lot of people out there have undiagnosed mental conditions without housing, without food, without a warm place, without family connections. You name it, it’s out there.”
Not to mention chronic conditions like diabetes. Or protection from frostbite when the winter season hits.
“People need to know it’s a crisis – it’s dire,” said Joanna Pandeiroot, program manager. “And it’s not, like Kevin said, a choice. These people often have an addition.” Some question that, saying things like why don’t they just get help.
But it’s often far more complex than that.
“I think more people need to know that – it’s not, ‘Today, I’m going to stop injecting’.” She noted the term ‘enabling’ is often used to describe the work of harm reduction. It’s still a hard sell with many in the community.
Carmichael said the term ‘harm reduction’ is gaining more and more of a reputation for being evidence-based, which is good news.
“We’re seeing lots of buy-in from the health regions and the funders, so that is fabulous. It’s a different concept to wrap your head around when you are talking about drug use and sex. But ultimately, she pointed out that lives are being saved and costs to the health care system are lessened. “It’s also about building relationships and connections.
“It’s accepting people where they’re at and how they are. They don’t move forward until that happens, so it’s really an entry point into potentially healthier lives.”
These days, the team continues to work hard to build community support for what they do. Carmichael said donations of cash or supplies to be given out nightly would be greatly appreciated.
But unfortunately, they certainly aren’t easy to come by compared to other social agencies she has worked with in the past where donations would tend to flow in generously.
Keira Vander Vliet, a former addict who now works with NightReach, said that it seems like when many people hear the word ‘needle’ they kind of freeze.
“For some reason, there’s this really serious opposition to anything having to do with a needle. Everything else is manageable and understandable, but as soon as someone starts using a needle there can be this almost visceral opposition to any of those behaviours. I think it’s something we need to get past.”
Cunningham agreed. “I think there is a detachment, until maybe someone’s life is affected. A family member affected, a friend of the family dies. Then, they are affected. Then it turns into awareness, and those judgments aren’t so easily cast when it’s a family member – a son, daughter, mother, father, cousin, uncle.”
As for the NightReach work itself, Vander Vliet can’t imagine anything more fulfilling.
“Talk about meeting people where they are at. We go out there and we are a completely safe place for these people.”