Frontline workers focus on street people
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.