Harm reduction on Calgary’s streets: An evening in the life of DOAP Team
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Mitchell* is waiting at the corner when the van pulls up to greet him.
“So what do you need?” asks Laura O’Connor, an outreach worker.
“Some 1-cc (syringes) and a tie-off,” he replies.
As she rifles between the van’s front seats for the right kit, her partner Blake Thomas asks Mitchell if he’s had any previous contact with harm-reduction staff in the city.
“No, this is the first time,” he replies. “We just started getting into needles.”
Thomas, a veteran member of Alpha House Calgary’s Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership – better known as the DOAP Team – tells Mitchell “we’re A-OK to call” for such requests but also recommends the Safeworks team, run by Alberta Health Services.
“They’re great to talk to about use and safe practices, or if you guys have any questions about detox or any medical concerns,” Thomas says.
Mitchell’s eyes light up.
“Detox?” he says, his voice rising.
Sensing his interest, the team offers to take him to the Renfrew Centre first thing in the morning, if he’s so inclined. He immediately agrees, hesitating only at the proposed pick-up time of 5:30 a.m.
“Well you’re going to have to buzz,” he says. “But I’ll go. I’m not changing my mind.”
And then he’s off, back to his apartment, clean needles in hand.
To Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO Diana Krecsy – whom Metro accompanied on a ride-along with the DOAP Team last week – Mitchell is a “brilliant” example of why harm reduction works.
“He doesn’t want to die, and he knows if he uses and shares needles, he’s at risk for HIV … but he knows he can’t stop,” she says. “And you saw him perk up when they said ‘detox.’”
Delivering the safe-injection kit was just one of dozens of stops for the DOAP Team during a rainy, Wednesday-evening shift.
Most of their time is spent shuttling people to and from hospitals, from the streets to a shelter, and between shelters.
When not on a specific call – either on the published number or on the “Bat Phone” that directly links the team to police and emergency responders – Thomas and O’Connor drive through downtown alleys, offering help to anyone they come across.
They know most of the people by name, and they’re almost universally greeted with a smile and a thank-you when they hand out bags of food, dry socks, and personal hygiene products.
“They’re beautiful people. They try to get us help, even though some of us don’t take it. And they’ll come anywhere to get you, if necessary.” – ‘Danny,’ a regular client of the DOAP Team
In one alley, they meet Steve, a client they know well but haven’t seen for some time. He’s wet, and he’s angry.
Steve had been working with the Encampment arm of the DOAP team, who specialize in assisting “rough sleepers,” but had lost touch. He felt the team had abandoned him, but O’Connor and Thomas urge him to return to the same spot in the alley later in the week, to reconnect.
He agrees, his anger subsiding, when he hears that the Encampment workers have been actively looking for him.
“I want off the streets – that’s all I want,” Steve says. “It’s time for this old boy to get back to work.”
As he bids the team goodbye, a young woman approaches the van.
“Edith!” both Thomas and O’Connor shout, as she runs up to hug them.
The 20-year-old is thrilled to see the outreach workers for the first time in months.
“Tell my sister I’m out of jail now,” she says to them, as they hand her a handful of condoms.
She thanks the team, and, gesturing to the man she’s with, matter-of-factly asserts: “Me and him, we’re going to go find a place to have sex.”
Edith then digs into one of her many bags, pulls out a large, beige-pink dildo, and waves it at the outreach workers with a laugh, before going on her way.
The DOAP Team first met Edith six or seven months ago.
As an “extreme hoarder” who also exhibits behaviours on both the fetal-alcohol and autism spectrums, O'Connor says she was initially wary but slowly warmed up to the team and accepted their help. Now, among the many trinkets Edith hauls around is a DOAP Team button, which she is quick to show off.
“She’s probably our best advocate,” Thomas says. “She goes around the streets and if someone’s passed out, she says, ‘Call this number!’”
That number: 403-998-7388.
* The first names of some of the people in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
The straight DOAP:
- The DOAP Team performed roughly 17,000 transports last year.
- The team’s outreach workers also responded to about 2,200 calls on the “Bat Phone” from police and EMS workers looking for assistance in various situations.
- The team interacts with about 650 unique individuals per month, on average. Of those, only about half make use of the Alpha House shelter.
- The shelter has room for about 120 to 150 people at any given time on the “intox” floor and 40 people in the separate detox facility.
- Team leader Blake Thomas said the principle of harm reduction underpins their work: “It’s to help people to engage in the activities that they’re choosing to do, and to do so in the healthiest way possible, so that they can stay alive, get educated, and make informed decisions that might benefit them in the future – to maybe stop that behaviour."