This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Spring 2024

Healing journeys

Adeline Panamaroff

Three adults of various ages stand shoulder to shoulder wearing vests that say "community outreach" on the back.

Photo courtesy of the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society and Community Outreach Transit Team

They’re slumped over on the seat, head almost touching the floor of the train car. The other passengers try to politely look away, avoiding sitting in their vicinity. Is the person asleep, unconscious? Possibly unhoused, with random personal items spilling out of a ripped backpack, they might need assistance. Yet no one moves to get involved.

Concerned, someone finally calls an Edmonton Transit Service peace officer. Someone else also shows up alongside them: a Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society (BATHS) outreach worker. Together, they gather the groggy person up and help them off the train.

This new social program, the Community Outreach Transit Team (COTT), was put into action along Edmonton’s train lines as a pilot project in 2021 to help give meaningful and humane support to unhoused people and people in distress who use the trains and bus system as shelter. The wider purpose of BATHS, “is to make sure that all Indigenous children are connected to their culture and families, especially to make sure that we’re also building on the strengths of Indigenous children and families, to enable them to grow spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally so that they can walk both in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities,” says BATHS senior manager Lloyd Yellowbird. Working off a similar program model as the Human-centred Engagement and Liaison Partnership in Calgary, the City of Edmonton, partnering with BATHS, felt that a related strategy could benefit the city’s unhoused people.

Together, this team is working to help end homelessness in Edmonton. Outreach workers, also staff members of BATHS trained in trauma-informed responses, connect people with inner-city programs that offer long-term solutions to those who choose to engage with the team members. They help unhoused people get ID and transportation to access medication and other services. Specialized training is important because, “a lot of times [houseless people] face living in a traumatic lifestyle to begin with. [They] don’t want to go to shelters because they don’t feel safe,” Yellowbird says.

After the successful end of the first pilot phase of the partnership in 2021- 22, 2,700 general interactions were logged, and there were 510 instances where referrals were made to assistive services. In March 2023, the city agreed to continue the COTT project, allocating funding of $2.1 million until Aug. 31, 2026. These funds are used by the outreach teams to connect their clients with housing programs and financial assistance services, and to reconnect families and communities. With seven active teams working along the transit system, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days per week, Yellowbird says that there will hopefully be funding for four more teams soon. COTT also continues to assist those who have received support from them in the past. “It’s not just a one-off kind of system. Support is always there,” Yellowbird says.

The work that BATHS does to connect displaced people to their communities is something that could, and should, be replicated in other cities. BATHS’s success is one way to help those who have been marginalized to find the community connection that leads to personal fulfillment.

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