Every day, police officers across Canada see people who are having a tough time.
In Port Alberni, B.C., a specially created unit works to help the most vulnerable — young people, often Indigenous, who are homeless, who may have drug addictions and who could be working in the sex trade.
We're finding kids who we didn't know existed," says Cst. Beth O'Connor, project lead with the Indigenous Safety Team (IST).
Young people are a big focus of the team's work, but O'Connor says the elderly are on their radar, too.
We're trying to help as many people as possible," she says. "More and more, elderly people are living alone and they need our attention."
Cpl. Jay Donahue, who developed the team, has worked in Port Alberni since 2007.
He explains the program was needed to reduce repeat rates of substance abuse and mental health interventions within the Nuu-chah-nulth community, whose tribal council is based in Port Alberni.
Port Alberni is a hub for a lot of the First Nations on Vancouver Island," adds O'Connor. "
Indigenous People come here to escape whatever problems they have at home and they get involved in street life."
Donahue says it became clear that arresting people wasn't the solution.
I'm talking about substance abuse, mental health, alcohol and domestic-related incidents that upon release, there was no follow-up or assistance for their specific problems," he says.
Donahue and O'Connor, along with Cst. Pete Batt, now look for people to help, day and night.
They're going out in the streets and into the woods to find people we can help," says Vina Robinson, Teechuktl (mental health) manager with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
The organization provides services and supports to 14 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations that have about 10,000 members.
A lot of young people make camps around the town, and we try to keep track of people who are there and those who need help," says O'Connor.
In November, the team learned about a troubled young Nuu-chah-nulth woman.
We have strong suspicions she's involved in the sex trade, is homeless and using drugs regularly," says Donahue.
The team works to maintain continual contact and find other resources to help the young woman.
We hope to get her into treatment," says Donahue. "
Sadly, we are also working with her 14-year-old sister."
Finding help faster
The idea of starting the IST began in 2018 when Donahue worked with local partners to establish an agreement allowing RCMP officers to make direct referrals to the council's mental health program.
Within a year of this program, we've had hundreds of referrals," says Donahue. "
The next step was establishing the IST and dealing with the highest risk First Nation members in town."
He says front-line workers, like those at the tribal council, are key to helping the most vulnerable in Port Alberni.
But we needed a quarterback — and that's the IST," he says.
Robinson says partnering with the RCMP has helped those in need obtain services more quickly.
They can talk to judges, for example, and explain instead of sending someone to jail, they need to be sent for counselling or some other intervention to get them help," she says.
Robinson adds the IST's work is also building trust between the police and the clients.
They're unbelievably important," she says. "
Before, if an RCMP officer approached someone on the street and said they wanted to help, the reaction would be 'Yeah, right.' But Beth (O'Connor) and the others talk to them, get to know them and once the kids find out they're there, they usually say, 'Yeah, I'd like some help.'"