This is one of a series of articles, as part of the feature called "Helpers", which focuses on people and organizations that help make our community better.
The homelessness situation in North Bay has taken over the headlines in recent days. People have questions and are looking for answers. One group that is trying to provide some answers to the people that need them the most is the North Bay Healthy Community Ambassador Program.
Bryan Eade is a program outreach manager and he says their program has been successful in providing those options to many people in our community.
“We’ve been able to house folks that had been homeless for a number of years,” says Eade. “Once people are established in a home, then we know how to find them and support them, and they don’t have to worry about where they are sleeping at night. That lets them start to focus on the other things they really need to concentrate on, whether its mental health or addictions or employment.”
Eade says they are out in the downtown area every day talking to people and finding out what their needs are.
“We often find folks in any kind of season, any kind of weather who aren’t wearing shoes, they don’t have a winter coat, they slept outside and they are soaking wet. Immediately we are just able to get them a change of clothes and get them into a facility where they can shower or just find a way to help them stay healthier while they are going through these struggles,” says Eade.
He says this program is, for the most part, a referral program with caseworkers who assess the situations of everyone they meet and “fine-tune their needs.”
Eade says right now there is an extra struggle with regulations in place surrounding Covid-19. He says, “A lot of community centres are shut down and a lot of supports are a little tougher to deal with. Even in our role right now we can be there to help people find the places to go to with a lot of spaces being shut down.”
This program has been in operation for a little over a year as Eade says it was part of a project that was initiated by several community organizations.
“Last August I was approached by Nipissing Mental Health to be part of a team for the outreach program. What we noticed was that downtown had a lot of folks who were homeless and staying around the area and they were struggling to have any kind of support. Part of the organization went down to Guleph, Ontario to observe a program called Welcoming Streets which is an outreach program where they go out into the community and talk to people and find out if they need anything to be safe, healthy, warm. But also, more importantly, offering supports that can help a little it in the future for getting out of these situations.”
That was the model this group brought back to North Bay and tweaked it to match what could be provided here.
“At first, we had about 10 different folks from different organizations going out in pairs for about an hour or two to chat with people,” says Eade. “What we found out was we weren’t really building a rapport with a lot of people because there were too many different faces. That’s why we reduced the program down to two people, going out about three to four hours a day and that was very very effective in building those relationships. My role was then put on full time, which I do 8 a.m.-4 p.m. every day. I have a colleague who is also an outreach worker as well as a housing case manager. Kassidy Tompkins spends a good part of the day just looking for apartments, trying to find out which units would be suitable for people and helping them fill out applications.”
And Eade points to affordable housing as the biggest need for the community.
“We have our housing case manager who is looking every day, but we’re finding bachelor units for $1,100-$1,200 a month, you can’t find a one-bedroom for less than $1,000. I feel that there’s been a major increase in rent over the past year or so that is making it really difficult to house our most vulnerable folks.”
Eade came to this position after working as a Case Manager for Nipissing Mental Health and based on his own experiences he was hoping to find a job where he could connect and help people.
“I was a mature student when I went back to work in this field and that was my goal was to try and help these folks who just don’t know where to go for help. I think there’s a lot of perception out there that people who are struggling with homelessness just choose to want to live this way, and while that is correct for some folks there’s a lot of people who don’t want that and just don’t know where to go. So, I’ve always had this idea on my radar. I do have a history of addictions and homelessness myself. So that’s one of the things that drove me to pursue this even more.”
And he says the work itself is very rewarding when they can help someone.
“We’re very proud of the work we do. Of course, like everyone else, we sometimes feel like we’re not doing enough, but we’ve seen some good success stories and we do what we can and our clients are very appreciative. I know that if they are feeling okay and feeling supportive than I know we’re accomplishing our goals.”
Eade says while there is always a lot of work to do, the feedback over the last several months has been very positive.
“We get a lot of feedback from a number of people. Whether its other community supports, or business owners, or just general bystanders, we get a lot of very positive feedback.
"This program was initially started by the Downtown Improvement Area and they are still very involved. They are the ones who approached our organization to see if we could help some of the folks that are downtown on Main Street. So that is our main detachment area, the five or six blocks that make up the downtown.
"Of course, we expand outside to support others, but it was the business owners who were finding people asleep in their doorways, they were always calling the police. Well now they can call us for non-emergency situations, so we free up the police a little bit, and then we are able to meet folks that need a home and we can get them support while providing them a safe space. So, the feedback from the community has been great, especially the downtown area. They still have their struggles and their concerns but its been a lot of good results coming from this.”
If you have a story suggestion for the “helpers” series, send Matt an email at firstname.lastname@example.org