Providing Transportation to Saskatoon’s Vulnerable Citizens
As I walk to The Lighthouse on a sunny spring morning, I try to mentally prepare for my ride along with the Mobile Outreach program. Then I realize that I’ve worked at the shelter for three months and only have a vague idea of what the support team actually does.
The front desk is a hub of activity as the morning shift change takes place, and day staff are updated on the events of the previous night.
I meet up with Suze Doucette and Roy McCallum, who will be taking me along with them for the day. We hop in the grey Dodge Caravan as McCallum throws a cooler packed with juice and sandwiches in the back.
Our first order of business is to take two clients to the Rexall on 20th Street to get their morning dose of methadone. They’re both shaking from withdrawal. “I’m so happy we have outreach!” exclaims one of the clients.
The Lighthouse only recently secured funding from the Saskatoon Health Region to operate the program 16 hours a day, from 8 am to midnight. The extended day hours means we can transport clients to their appointments all over the city. Before the program she would have to walk, bus or take a cab on cold days.
While our clients wait in line for methadone, we cruise the streets of Pleasant Hill. Doucette sits in the passenger seat and chats about finishing her practicum in Addictions Counseling at the Saskatoon Housing Coalition, “You sure see how mental health, addictions and housing go together, how it’s such a problem in Saskatoon.”
McCallum is quieter throughout the day, focused on driving. But it’s easy to notice both of them light up when we see clients on the street. They keep the windows rolled down, honking and yelling greetings to everyone by name.
We drive past a man on a bike and Doucette says, “He’s still sober, that’s great!” We pull over to chat with him and McCallum gives him an orange slip of paper– a free pass to the YMCA to use the gym, pool and shower. “You see? I told you I’d take care of you!” McCallum says.
Doucette shows me the journal she’s writing in. The outreach team has to keep a detailed record of every person they connect with throughout their eight hour shift. They use the stats to apply for funding. When I ask what the program needs to help them do their jobs better, Doucette immediately says, “A computer! Anything to make this paperwork easier.”
We spend the rest of the day zipping around the city, taking people to doctor’s appointments, driving clients to drop off housing forms and handing out juice and snacks.
The phone rings every few minutes and Doucette answers. It’s usually the front desk with another person who needs transportation. McCallum tries his best to get clients to their appointments on time.
We head to Riversdale to pick up the man we saw biking earlier. He has a doctor’s appointment in fifteen minutes on the other side of the city. While en route he explains that his doctor recently moved to Stonebridge and it’s too far for him to bike there.
After we drop him off, Doucette says, “If you could have seen him four months ago, you wouldn’t believe he was the same person.” She explains that when she met him for the first time last winter, he was intoxicated and suicidal- on his way to jump off the bridge. “My training immediately kicked in and I knew I had to talk him down,” says Doucette.
She spent an hour with him and eventually got him to sleep at The Lighthouse that night. Since then he has been committed to staying sober and getting his life back on track. “That rarely happens,” admits Doucette.
As we wait for someone at the bank, Doucette notices another client across the street, intoxicated and panhandling. She calls him over and gets him into the van, “It’s time to get some sleep,” she tells him. He comes with us willingly and we take him to the Stabilization Unit at The Lighthouse to sleep it off. He was seven months sober.
The day and night shifts are completely different for outreach. Since there aren’t appointments at night, the support team has more time to connect with clients and talk about their addictions, encouraging them to take advantage of services at The Lighthouse or other clinics around the city. “Humor is key in outreach,” says Doucette, “you got to know how to make them laugh.”
On top of a keen sense of humor, support workers also need a lot of training. First Aid, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and Part and Wave, which teaches how to de-escalate violent situations, are required to work in outreach.
“You need a personality that jives with the clients,” says Doucette. Some people come to the program and clients can tell they’re uncomfortable, which makes it harder to foster relationships. “If you can’t deal with conflict, don’t work in outreach.”
Conflict can cover many things. “We’ve taken weapons away from people,” says McCallum. “I’ve been swung at and I had a sandwich thrown at me,” Doucette laughs, “but it’s more verbal abuse than anything.”
Despite a few incidents, Doucette says most people are grateful for the program and she feels perfectly safe working in outreach. “This is my comfort zone,” she gestures to the van. “They’re still human beings and they still deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”