Jeremy Kelly was taking a rare break when he was called on to save a life.
Kelly, part of the Nelson Street Outreach team, had spent a busy morning helping clients during his downtown walk. He’s required to take a break but usually doesn’t, opting instead to eat lunch on the go so he can keep meeting with the people who rely on him every day.
But on Jan. 13, Kelly sat down for a quick coffee with a friend. Then his phone rang.
Someone was overdosing on fentanyl in a business’s washroom only a couple doors away. One of Kelly’s clients had called to let him know, so Kelly grabbed his bag and ran over. He found a man he already knew lying stiff on the floor, his skin turning blue and his heart silent.
Kelly had never intervened in an overdose before, but he’d witnessed the scenario previously as a street volunteer in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He acted quick, giving the man two injections of naloxone.
Shortly after paramedics arrived. They did resuscitation on the man, who woke within two minutes. He was hospitalized, and Kelly was praised by the responders.
“To be honest, I was just in the right place at the right time with the right training,” says Kelly, who grew up on the East Shore. “And I would hope any citizen would be interested in getting the training and would do the exact same thing. I don’t think I did anything remarkable. I did what was in front of me.”
Except that’s not true. What he did was in fact remarkable, and is just one example of how Kelly and the Nelson Street Outreach team, which also consists of Ryall Giuliano, Bernadette White and project manager Lynda Dechief, are saving lives every day.
The team has been on the job since Oct. 11. They came together after a bylaw that would have prohibited panhandling in Nelson was voted down by city council last July. Instead, council opted to give the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative a year to try an outreach program.
The collaborative raised just under $100,000 for the pilot project prior to hiring Kelly, Giuliano and White. By the end of December, the team had connected with 111 people in Nelson, about half of whom have needed assistance. Thirteen of those people have required regular support from the team, and six have gone on to rehab facilities.
But even the numbers don’t adequately show just how much of an impact the trio has had in just four months.
Peter had a hard night. He was bleary-eyed in the morning when he went to the Salvation Army for breakfast, and was relieved to see Ryall Giuliano sit down across from him.
The pair chatted about Peter’s health and made plans to see each other again later that day.
“I don’t want to sound too melodramatic or over-the-top, but I can say that for myself in all honesty, for better or for worse, this fine gentleman is one of the reasons I’m still here to this day,” said Peter.
Peter, who declined to give his last name, has been living in Nelson for several years. He met Giuliano in September, shortly before the team started its work.
Prior to that, Peter said he didn’t know where to find the help he needs. Giuliano offered not only information, but a non-judgemental voice.
“I don’t really know where persons like this actually come from in regards to want to help and not hurt and to heal, not to harm. It’s wonderful.”
Of course, the team offers much more than a friendly face. Kelly and Giuliano are tasked with walking downtown and checking in on people who have to survive on the streets. They each carry backpacks with items such as food, socks, mittens, vitamins, clean needles, tampons, med kits and paperwork. (Cod liver oil, which has vitamins A and D in it, is the team’s most requested item.)
After chatting with Peter, Giuliano walked Baker Street. He said hi casually to some, stopping by anyone sitting on the sidewalk to see if they needed anything. One man asked for a bus ticket, and Giuliano agreed to stop by later with it.
The team never assumes someone needs help. They’re also careful to make sure no one relies on them too much.
“If someone asks me for a meal voucher for instance but I know they are fully capable of stacking chairs at the soup kitchen [in return] for a free meal, then it’s sort of like, come on man, go stack some chairs,” says Giuliano.
“You don’t want people to become dependent on you, right? You want to encourage them to support themselves. That’s the only real balance we’re looking at. Otherwise I’m happy to give people stuff.”
Giuliano grew up in Marathon, Ont. He worked in shelters in Guelph, Ont., and came to Nelson from Summerland, B.C., expecting to work in carpentry before the outreach job opened.
He said his conversations with clients are often goal based. Do they want to find housing? Do they want treatment? Do they want to reconnect with family or find a job? Giuliano helps find answers to those questions.
“I think people who have some reservations about the team is we’re just going to become some sort of social organization that’s going to make it more comfortable for people to be homeless here, and that’s not at all what I feel we are doing,” he says.
One of the team’s crucial jobs is to connect clients with other services such as Stepping Stones, Nelson CARES or Mental Health and Substance Use Services.
Bernadette White describes the team as the hub in a wheel.
“We’re kind of this connector, and we’re neutral territory. “We’re not aligned with any specific organization,” she says. “We are a separate entity but connected to the whole.”
What that practically means is helping clients fill out paperwork and accompanying them to appointments. Kelly said tagging along with their clients alleviates a lot of tension.
“There are a lot of walls and barriers for our clientele right out of the gates, because they are homeless or they’re on welfare or they don’t know how to clearly articulate their need. …,” says Kelly. “We end up getting them to three appointments in two days, which for someone living on the street is unheard of. They lead completely unstructured lives, so when they have to navigate in a structured system it’s really difficult for them.”
One of those systems is rehab. Not everyone on the street suffers from an addiction, and for those who do the team is leery of even suggesting rehab as an option. They know it won’t take if a client feels pushed into it, and even then treatment doesn’t necessarily cure addiction.
That being said, Giuliano says one of the team’s first big successes was when someone agreed to go into rehab. That’s when Giuliano first knew they were making a difference.
“That felt like a really big win for us,” he says, adding that once the word got out clients began approaching the team. “We’re careful not to think putting people on Greyhounds off to treatment is going to work for everyone. That’s not our intention to ship everyone out. But if that’s someone’s goal and we can help them get there, then that’s a really awesome, powerful feeling, and I think that’s when I felt it.”
Kelly tells a similar story: one of his clients was slated to go to a treatment facility when he overdosed and was arrested. Kelly travelled to the client’s court date in Rossland and argued on his behalf. The man was released to Kelly, and four days later went to treatment in Vancouver.
“He’s three months sober and he’s going to reunite with his daughter,” says Kelly. “I talk to him almost daily and he’s a completely changed person. It is incredible to hear the change in his voice. His mental health worker was like, ‘He’s a completely different person. I can’t believe it.’”
Twenty-five years ago, White moved from Calgary to Nelson hoping to get away from a personal history that included alcoholism, addiction, bulimia, anorexia and sexual abuse. But her demons didn’t disappear just because she crossed the Rockies, and in 1995 she tried to commit suicide.
It was her last attempt, and when it failed she emerged from the experience motivated to find help.
“That was my turning point. I found a really good counsellor and we proceeded very painfully to move forward,” says White. “I’ve done a lot of self study on mindfulness, on meditation, the different religions, connecting with people who were more life-affirming, who offered real kindness and weren’t there to change me but were there to support me.”
White, who serves as a peer support worker on the team, had already essentially been doing the job on her own for years. All she previously lacked was knowledge about what local services were available in Nelson.
Lynda Dechief said hiring White was a no-brainer. Besides the importance of having a woman on the team, White also added insight into Nelson’s street culture.
“It was just obvious with Bernadette,” says Dechief. “She’s been involved all along. She’s been doing a form of this work, compassionate listening of people on the streets, for years. For her to become part of the team just made absolute sense.”
White said the feedback from people the team has connected with has been positive.
“We have gained nothing but respect,” she says. “They still come to me, because I listen. That’s the biggest role that I play, and I always have in this town. An open mind, an open heart, compassion, understanding, and the suspension of judgement.”
In a way, it was never really people on the street who the team had to win over. It was everyone else.
Police and business
The panhandling bylaw, which remains an option for city council to vote on again in September, was meant as a tool to help the Nelson Police Department and bylaw officers. But all it did was stipulate where panhandlers could be without addressing why they were on the street in the first place.
The police have been supportive of Nelson Street Outreach. Chief Paul Burkart was a member of the collaborative group that devised the team, and the police have already on occasion asked for assistance.
Dechief recalled an incident when police requested the team speak with a group camped out at City Hall.
“It just was win-win for everyone,” she says. “The police didn’t have to respond to something that wasn’t really a policing issue. These people felt really supported by Ryall when he showed up. He already had a relationship with them.”
Getting businesses on board has been more difficult.
In September, a meeting organized by the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce to link the team with business owners was poorly attended by the latter. The business community also contributed just $1,780 in funding for the endeavour.
Giuliano said they are still working on reaching out to businesses. The ones they have dealt with so far have been grateful for the help.
“It feels like the next level to call police, and then [people] aren’t getting the type of intervention they want to get or it feels negative,” he says. “Or [businesses] fear it because they don’t want to be retaliated against, which is a fear I’ve heard but never actually seen happen.”
According to the team, there’s also a local hesitancy to get too involved in street culture. They’ve started suggesting owners train employees in administering naloxone, which Kelly says will lead to less headlines about fentanyl deaths in businesses and more about how businesses are saving lives.
White says more people are carrying naloxone, but that it is still misunderstood as an antidote instead of a temporary opiate blocker.
“One of the early biggest mistakes of any drug user injecting is when they were administered the naloxone, they generally get pissed off because you’ve just blown their $20. What they didn’t realize is that in 45 minutes that [high] comes back. If they shoot up again, chances are they won’t come through that one.”
At least one business, El Taco, is taking fentanyl seriously. After a recent overdose at the restaurant, the staff were trained to use naloxone.
Although it’s a pilot project, Nelson Street Outreach has no intention of going anywhere.
Dechief says she’s already begun submitting grants to keep the team funded past its initial year. The team is an experiment, but they also believe what they are doing is worth continuing long term.
“There’s no way that we would solve the problem and wipe our hands after a year, and there’s no way things are going to get better in B.C. in the next six or seven months,” says Giuliano.
“I think this work will definitely still be needed, and more of it will be needed across the province.”
Even if street outreach teams don’t pop up around the province, at least one person knows the effect Nelson’s team is having locally. Peter said he likes how the team treats him as a person, not just another statistic.
“This is personal. This is one on one, this is the reality of it,” he says. “I like that.”