BEHIND THE SCENES: We spent a night visiting encampments with outreach workers
In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media’s Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.
These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario.
Today’s spotlight is on Sudbury.com’s Jenny Lamothe, whose story ‘‘ was published on Oct. 31.
Here is the original story if you need to catch up:
Editor’s note: The names of the people and places visited have been changed to protect the privacy of the vulnerable populations involved.
New year, new faces, same story.
For the last two years,Sudbury’s only night-time outreach group. We headed out again Oct. 23.
While Sudbury.com is headquartered downtown, and makes an effort to understand the issues at play in the homelessness crisis, the whole of Sudbury can change at night, revealing new people and populations.
On Oct. 23, instead of visiting those in the streets of downtown Sudbury, at least a portion of the night with the Go-Give Project involved hiking into the city’s nooks and crannies, visiting encampments.
For the outreach workers, these regular visits to hidden encampments are an inefficient way of delivering services, and also potentially unsafe.
This outreach work occurs seven nights a week in the city, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the homelessness crisis first burgeoned into an encampment in Memorial Park, it was easier to provide services to those in need — most people were congregated in a few central locations.
Now, more than half the night is spent searching for pockets of people tucked into hidden corners of the city, spread from one end of the community to the other. Some are able to build more permanent, though still ad hoc structures, but many are packing their meager belongings and tents and carrying them all day.
The ages of those we met are also spread from one end of the age spectrum to the other, beginning with ‘Kayden’ (not his real name), who is 17*, turning 18 soon. He used a substance for the first time about a month ago in advance of leaving foster care. He is currently sleeping on the streets, though Go-Give volunteers urge him to go to the shelter at SACY, as its four youth beds may not have filled yet.
Statistically, it is quite likely that Sudbury.com will see him over and over again in the downtown core, struggling. Either that, or he will die from toxic poisoning. The likelihood he will escape drops with each day spent on the street.
At the far end of the spectrum is ‘Bill’ (not his real name), a man in his mid-60s who said he has been on the streets a long time. He said he’s been “off the fetty (fentanyl) for eight months now.”
He spent time in jail, which helped get him through the first six months of being off fentanyl, and now it’s up to him. He wants to repair the relationship with his remaining son, he said, having lost his wife and his two other sons to toxic poisoning.
At one point, a woman Sudbury.com knows well, and who has been using heavily for at least two years, approached the Go-Give Project’s mobile outreach van to ask for food and harm reduction supplies, but it is hard to hear her over the loud classical music playing outside.
It appears to be coming from the building that houses(190 Larch Street) at the back of the Off The Street Shelter and across the street from Tom Davies Square. When Sudbury.com visits the area on Oct. 29 at 11:00 a.m., the music is still blaring.
The Go-Give project volunteers believe it is an auditory barrier, meant to keep people from settling near it to sleep.
But one person is undeterred by the noise. She is curled into the fetal position and laying on the ground in the parking lot at the Larch Street shelter. The two threadbare comforters she has covered herself with will be wet from the night before long. She is huddled against the brick building, her face to the wall, pulling at the blankets in a futile attempt to get them to cover both her boots and her head.
The Go-Give Project, through donation, can offer emergency blankets, socks for her feet and hands, and a warm meal. On this night, it is either shepherd’s pie, a favourite from one of Go-Give’s longtime cooks, Christine, or lentils and rice from thetemple, which feeds the homeless every night through The Go-Give Project’s outreach.
So many blankets, coats and other items are donated to community groups with the hopes of keeping people warm. They won’t be dry for long. On a damp fall evening in Northern Ontario, many of the blankets, mittens and toques given out will be wet by morning, with no place to dry them. Others will be left behind by those who found their high, and walk off in a haze, or have it stolen.
Most of the people we meet are beholden to their addiction, despite everything happening around them and to them.
Others are there as a result of their mental health challenges, left unchecked, or untreated. One man we met spent weeks in hospital recently, but is now back on the streets, shopping cart in tow. He thought there was a bug in his ear, and in his attempt to remove it drove a stick in so far that he almost popped his ear drum.
Of the 91 people Sudbury.com interacted with, a majority of them were new faces. . Unlike in 2021, when there were many out-of-towners making up the By-Name List (the running list of people living on the street in Sudbury that’s maintained by the city), now there are more locals, victims of the housing crisis.
The Go-Give project has several clients on their check-in list that are technically housed, but they are living without electricity, heat or water. They are hesitant to complain, and stay as they have no other options.
There are people hunkering down in the bank alcoves of the South End, hoping to stay warm until they are kicked out. There are also many in the bush of the same area. Four others are outside the McKenzie Street Library. At least 20 people are by the downtown bus station. All told, some 30 people are living in the encampments we visited.
On the night of Oct. 23, we encountered three people huddled to stay warm near the Laurentian University McEwen School of Architecture downtown.
One familiar face, an older man who was in the same place last year; he is now with a twenty-something woman and an 18-year-old man. He appears to be guiding them, showing them how to survive the night.
This evening, it is so cold that only those who are incapable of standing are prone. One man, Steve, lost his fingers to frostbite from the cold nights in the encampment. He is currently passed out on a cement slab, wearing a cotton hoodie and jeans, with no shoes. He is breathing, and responds to his name, but isn’t cognizant of his surroundings. He will only allow Go-Give volunteers to drape a mylar foil emergency blanket over him.
We meet another man, also known to Sudbury.com. He is wearing nothing but a tank top and khaki pants, no shoes, no coat. He accepts a few gifts from Go-Give, and runs away before it occurs to him to ask for warm clothes.
All the while, through the entire shift, there are also calls coming into the outreach line. Some are homeless, setting up a drop off location for food and harm reduction supplies like needles, pipes, tinfoil, and Narcan, an overdose reversal drug. Clients who are housed call to ask for harm reduction supplies as well, and if there is any left over, some food.
And while the experience was eye-opening for Sudbury.com, it was just another night for the outreach workers trying to provide a measure of kindness and compassion, and just another night for those on the street who are trying to make it to the morning.
Tomorrow is another day. And more of the same.
*information about Kayden’s age has been adjusted.
Jenny Lamothe covers the vulnerable and marginalized communities for Sudbury.com