I had the opportunity to join The Bridge Outreach team for a shift in Downtown Kelowna, five hours that opened my eyes to a new perspective on homeless life in the Central Okanagan.
My two colleagues – who I had only previously met at training sessions and meetings – took me under their wings to show me what they do day in day out.
Our Outreach Overdose Prevention Service team features four staff members who collectively provide this service in Kelowna seven days a week – downtown in the afternoon and in Rutland in the evening. We also are providing two, four-hour shifts per week in West Kelowna.
My colleagues each loaded up their backpacks with supplies – hiking packs converted to help our community. Each pack filled with harm reduction supplies: Naloxone kits, safe disposal containers for needles, sunscreen, Band-Aids and substance use paraphernalia.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, people are not given illicit substances. However, they are given supplies to reduce the risks of spreading disease or infection and prevent people dying from overdose.
Throughout the afternoon, we hiked around downtown meeting and connecting with people as my colleagues gave out harm reduction supplies.
For me it was a new experience. I have never before actively sought to engage with our community’s homeless people. Like most, when I have been downtown I may encounter these individual and just continue on my own way.
Some stereotypes appeared to be valid. Many people were dirty, some had visible physical ailments, others had difficulty speaking. Yet contrary to the opinion of some, they were not mean people.
We were often greeted with smiles. Supplies were given out to please and thank you and we were always asked how our day was going, and when we asked in return “good” was the most common answer.
Many of the homeless people we encountered had struck a relationship with our outreach workers. People were incredibly friendly joking with us and sharing stories.
One person kept seeking us out as we made our way through downtown, we ran into him four times throughout the day. He was not seeking more supplies, but to share his stories of the day as it progressed.
Someone had sent him a coupon for a free Frappuccino and on a 30-degree day, he made sure to gloat and drink it in front of us – a big smile pasted across his lips.
We visited the Cornerstone shelter, the first time I had set foot into a homeless shelter. Yes, people use drugs here, but in a vastly safer environment. Staff are available to assist them in the event that something go wrong and provide immediate help. People have a bed to sleep in, food to eat and a shower to clean themselves.
I encourage those in our community who are vehemently opposed to the current social services available, to step inside and see for your own eyes what happens here. You just may find some new understanding and compassion within yourself.
The biggest complaint we faced in the day was that we were not carrying water, and sunscreen became the most requested of our supplies as the scorching hot afternoon progressed.
Hot, sweaty and tired my shift ended and away I went. Back into my air-conditioned car on my way to pick up dinner from the grocery store that I would go home to cook in my kitchen.
Regular day activities, previously taken for granted – with new appreciation and a changed perspective.