Front­line work­ers fo­cus on street peo­ple

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - CHRIS­TINE HINZMANN Staff Re­porter chinz­[email protected]­i­t­i­

There are young women shrouded in blan­kets, card­board cov­er­ing oth­ers.

Some peo­ple are hud­dled to­gether for warmth on the chilly morn­ing while still more are slowly mak­ing their way over to St. Vin­cent de Paul So­ci­ety’s Drop In Cen­tre on Sec­ond Av­enue where break­fast will soon be served.

It’s about 7:30 a.m. on the day af­ter wel­fare Wed­nes­day in down­town Prince Ge­orge. RCMP of­fi­cers are out do­ing their usual down­town duty of mov­ing those who live on the street up and out of the way of busi­nesses that will soon be open­ing their doors.

Ac­cord­ing to Don, a home­less man who has lived in Prince Ge­orge his whole life, no­body has to go hun­gry here. Don stays at Ketso Yoh as of­ten as he can. Ketso Yoh is a shel­ter for men op­er­ated by the Prince Ge­orge Na­tive Friend­ship Cen­tre and of­fers 21 emer­gency shel­ter beds, 10 al­co­hol and drug sup­port­ive re­cov­ery beds, and 15 sup­ported liv­ing beds.

“It’s qui­eter on the street to­day af­ter every­one on wel­fare gets their money,” Don says. “There’s a lot less peo­ple around be­cause they all got money but usu­ally we’ve got lots more peo­ple down­town now than ever be­fore. There’s lots of new faces around here lately.”

He’s not sure why that is but he’s cer­tainly no­ticed. He says there are more peo­ple on drugs he has to avoid.

This Thurs­day morn­ing, as the peo­ple are moved along by the po­lice, there’s a lot of de­bris left over. Dis­carded nee­dles are strewn on the ground, there’s clothes used as bed­ding, food wrap­pers and empty cups scat­tered around.

There’s even hu­man fe­ces. Cleanup du­ties are left to the by­law com­pli­ance as­sis­tants, a team the was put in place last year to deal with the mas­sive job on a daily ba­sis. This ef­fort was done as a pi­lot project and was re­cently ap­proved as a per­ma­nent part of the city’s by­law ser­vices. As much as 1,000 pounds of de­bris is re­moved from the down­town area a week, which in­cludes camps set up through­out the city.

Cpl. Sonja Blom is mak­ing her morn­ing rounds. She’s been in Prince Ge­orge for the whole 12 years she’s been an RCMP of­fi­cer and she loves the city, she says. She’s orig­i­nally from 100 Mile House and lives here with her hus­band, who is also a po­lice of­fi­cer, and their two young daugh­ters.

Blom usu­ally rides in Car 60, the men­tal health and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence unit, which is a part­ner­ship be­tween North­ern Health and the Prince Ge­orge RCMP de­tach­ment.

To­day, she’s in two hours ear­lier than usual to es­cort The Cit­i­zen on a ride along.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Blom is Car­men De

Menech, the youth strate­gies co­or­di­na­tor with the RCMP. She’s been on the youth sup­port team for about four years.

De Menech is on the look­out for her clients – high-risk youth on the street. There are three spe­cific miss­ing youth she is keep­ing her eye out for while mak­ing the rounds. The youth that take to the streets are al­most al­ways those who have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma and who are now strug­gling with men­tal health is­sues, De Menech ex­plains.

“The youth that I deal with all strug­gle with trauma, I would say that is the num­ber one com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor,” De Menech says. “No young per­son is out on the street be­cause they are a bad kid. They are out there be­cause they’ve been hurt and they are strug­gling and they don’t know how to do it any bet­ter than where they’re at at this mo­ment.”

It’s not easy see­ing the youth strug­gle, she says.

“And it’s not easy to harm-re­duce in the mo­ment.”

As part of the job, those pa­trolling the street carry Nalox­one opi­oid over­dose kits. Blom hasn’t had to use one yet and De Menech has been there as sup­port dur­ing three over­dose in­ci­dents on down­town P.G. streets, but not all were for youth, she says.

“We see a lot of sad things through our work,” Blom says. “And it’s not all trau­matic, some, yes, but a lot is just peo­ple who have fallen through the cracks, peo­ple who are strug­gling.”

Sev­eral times, women are seen on all fours, seem­ingly look­ing for some­thing they’ve lost.

“It’s typ­i­cal drug be­hav­iour,” Blom ex­plains.

When asked about it, she says she was told that they’re look­ing for bits of crack they think might have fallen on the ground and one time Blom saw a woman dig­ging in the dirt look­ing for money she thought was buried there. So delu­sions and hal­lu­ci­na­tions are all part of drug use in the down­town.

At the corner of Sec­ond and Ge­orge, there are two men bent over what looks like a bun­son burner. There’s some sort of con­tainer be­ing held over the small open flame but when Blom gets out of the un­marked car, the con­tainer dis­ap­pears and in­stead the one man holds his hands over the flame as if to warm them.

Blom isn’t fooled.

As the man con­tin­ues to bend at the waist, the con­tainer is gone but the foot-long blade of the knife that’s in the back of his pants is quite ob­vi­ous. He claims he just found the knife and Blom agrees that she just found it, too, and tells him she’s tak­ing it with her. There is no ar­gu­ment.

When the knife makes it back to the sta­tion, it will be de­stroyed.

As the route takes to the out­ly­ing ar­eas of down­town, there’s a camp with mat­tresses and a plas­tic tote of be­long­ings and a whole lot of garbage in one par­tic­u­larly iso­lated area. As we stop, an­other ve­hi­cle pulls up. The driver says he was look­ing to see if the man who lives there is OK. The man is wor­ried be­cause he hasn’t seen the home­less man for a few days.

Where Vic­to­ria Street and 20th Av­enue meet, there seems to be a hub of ac­tiv­ity. There are groups of young women walk­ing and talk­ing. There are groups of men and women of all ages hud­dled un­der blan­kets in the back al­ley near the con­ve­nience store. Peo­ple are dart­ing across the street look­ing be­hind them as if to make sure they’re not be­ing chased.

De Menech spots a miss­ing youth. She asks Blom to stop so she can get out.

Af­ter a minute, De Menech re­turns. We’re headed for the fast food driv­ethru. There’s a con­nec­tion be­tween peo­ple and food and it’s a small step so the so­cial worker can con­nect to a youth on the street for just a minute longer.

De Menech ex­plains those us­ing drugs of­ten ask for cold things to eat. Ice cream is very pop­u­lar.

“It helps with the fire in their belly that’s go­ing on from the chem­i­cals that are go­ing into their sys­tem,” De Menech said.

Blom said she’s found that peo­ple on drugs want a lot of su­gar, too.

For De Menech, she’s hope­ful be­cause part of the re­quest for food was for hot choco­late. That might in­di­cate the youth is not suf­fer­ing from the af­fects of us­ing drugs at that mo­ment.

Both women ad­mit there are times they have to work hard to re­main hope­ful and op­ti­mistic.

Blom laughs and says if you ask her mom, she’d say her daugh­ter is more cyn­i­cal.

“I still re­ally do try to see the good in peo­ple but I think as a po­lice of­fi­cer and deal­ing with the crim­i­nal ele­ment and the peo­ple we end up deal­ing with some­times it can be dif­fi­cult,” Blom says. “We’re deal­ing with ei­ther crim­i­nals or their vic­tims a lot of the time.”

De Menech has cho­sen to re­main em­pa­thetic.

“As soon as you harden up and lose em­pa­thy, then you might as well stop do­ing it be­cause you’re not go­ing to help any longer,” she says. When work­ing with youth, she added, if you can sep­a­rate the be­hav­iour from the per­son, it some­how makes it eas­ier.

“If the youth sense you’ve given up on them, they will do the same. If you tell some­one - a youth or an adult - they’re not worth any­thing, how are they ever go­ing to be more than that?”


Above: Cpl. Sonja Blom logs into her com­puter prior to hit­ting the streets Thurs­day morn­ing. Be­low: Blom checks on a home­less man on Que­bec Street Thurs­day morn­ing.


Cpl. Sonja Blom con­fis­cates a large knife from a man in the park­ing lot on Ge­orge Street and Sec­ond Av­enue Thurs­day morn­ing. Be­low: The po­lice move peo­ple from the front of St. Vin­cent de Paul on Sec­ond Av­enue early Thurs­day morn­ing.

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