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Not ‘ghosts’ anymore: How an Indigenous-led patrol wants to change perception of Calgary homeless

Not ‘ghosts’ anymore: How an Indigenous-led patrol wants to change perception of Calgary homeless
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CALGARY—Standing in a parking lot on a dark Friday night, Gitz Crazyboy warns the crowd of volunteers gathered around him to prepare themselves to see things they can’t unsee.

“There really is no way to prepare yourself to see someone pass away or to come upon somebody who just recently passed. Or people in distress in general, there’s no real way to prep yourself for that,” Crazyboy said.

“In an ideal situation, we are there in the nick of time. But life isn’t like that.”

Coming across people who are overdosing or even have passed away are some of the risks the Bear Clan Patrol takes every week. Since Crazyboy helped organize the patrol in November, the group has met each Friday to walk streets and back alleys downtown and in the Forest Lawn neighbourhood. On their patrols, they pick up discarded needles and drug paraphernalia, and pass out naloxone kits, food, hand warmers and condoms as they’re needed.

The original Bear Clan Patrol was created in Winnipeg where organizers wanted to form an Indigenous-led group for their inner city communities. The idea has been so successful that their group touts having more than 1,500 volunteers. The Winnipeg group provided guidance and instruction for the new Calgary patrol to help them get started.

On an early December patrol, Crazyboy arrives to meet volunteers outside the Central Library. Some have brought needle disposal boxes picked up from Alpha House nearby. The group mingles as more experienced group leaders tell newer members what to expect. As the group sets out, Crazyboy explains that the group tries not to judge the people they meet, and add to the stigma around addiction and homelessness.

Instead they want people to know that the Bear Clan Patrol are available and willing to provide naloxone kits, first aid or whatever other supports people might need. He argues it’s a more useful way to address addiction than cracking down or kicking them out of certain areas.

“Unless you deal with the actual people and their addiction, they’re just going to keep floating into different neighbourhoods, closer to places that are not as well supervised,” Crazyboy said. “It’s just a reality we have to admit that we’re in, but it’s also a reality that the way we’ve been dealing with this in the past decades isn’t necessarily working.”

The patrol members are positive and upbeat, even while bundled up in the bitter Calgary cold weather. They greet everyone they meet along their path through downtown Calgary, stopping to check in on people sitting on benches. They meet briefly with the Drop-In Centre’s volunteers to introduce themselves and gladly explain who they are to anyone that stops them to ask what they’re doing. Their commitment to picking up needles takes them through back alleys and behind businesses, and down along the Bow River.

At one point Crazyboy and the other volunteers walk by a group of around six people preparing to take drugs. Instead of intervening which he knew would be pointless and could scare them, the patrol greets them and continues on their way.

Later that night, a crowd of people behind the Border Crossing pub in Forest Lawn spots the team, cheering and yelling their thanks to them as the Bear Clan Patrol walks past. Yvonne Henderson, one of the patrol’s original Calgary organizers, says they’ve received praise like this for their willingness to walk through the city’s back alleys and try to make them safer.

“We’re not police officers, we’re not vigilantes, we’re not out there trying to solve all the world’s problems,” Henderson said. “We’re going in there and saying ‘Hey, you’re facing your problems but you don’t have to face them alone.’”

The patrol also directs the people they help to resources or supports they can use. They’ve reached out to other groups doing similar work to build relationships with them such as Alpha House and the Drop-In & Rehab Centre.

But being the only Indigenous-led group doing this kind of outreach, Crazyboy said they have their own specific role they can play to better help Indigenous people.

“To see the reflection of yourself, to see somebody who is of your own kin of the same nation as you are, there’s so much empowerment in that,” Crazyboy said.

“To have Indigenous people helping Indigenous people, it brings them closer to home.”

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Hip Deranger started volunteering with the group because he says he was tired of seeing struggling Indigenous people in Calgary met with apathy.

“Maybe they see what we’re doing here ... maybe it gives them that hope that someone out there is listening,” Deranger said.

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When the patrol passes Olympic Plaza’s busy skating rink, he notices a group of people that includes a man silently sitting on the ground with no blanket, shivering in the cold.

Deranger says a quick greeting in Blackfoot, before he and the other volunteers help him sit up on a bench and hand him a cup of warm soup, draping a blanket around his shoulders. They then track down a police officer to call Alpha House to come take him to shelter.

“So many people walk by these people like they’re ghosts. What’s wrong with being nice to them? What’s wrong with saying hello?” Deranger said.

Crazyboy says he had no problem finding volunteers, and many of them have lost loved ones and family members to drug addiction or homelessness. Others like Maskwacis Boysis, grew up around violence and want to work now to keep their communities safe.

Boysis said the patrol, to him, is mainly about living up to their traditional responsibilities as protectors and providers, and creating safer spaces for people who can otherwise be made to feel unwelcome in their own city. He said he hopes their work can also break negative stereotypes some still hold about Indigenous people.

“We want to try and break those stereotypes,” Boysis said. “The stereotypes of hypermasculine, toxic masculinity, all of these things, breaking those stereotypes for our youth and for other people.”

Aside from their work downtown, the patrol also fills a gap in services in Forest Lawn. The patrol chose the neighbourhood because they feel there aren’t enough services for people who use drugs.

A mobile supervised consumption site that would have had one location in Forest Lawn was long in the works, organized by HIV Community Link, before progress was halted by the new United Conservative government earlier this year.

Patroller Yvonne Henderson, who grew up in the neighbourhood, said she’d like to see a site open in the neighbourhood, as it could mean less needles on the streets. Forest Lawn also needs more spaces for people to go to when they’re in a state of overdose or at risk during Calgary’s cold winter months, she said.

“(The SCS) needs to get off the ground and running. It has to stop being talk, and there has to start being action,” Henderson said.

As for growth in the patrol, Crazyboy says he’d like to eventually see full-time positions funded and a regular space to run their operations out of. He’d like to one day organize food programs and clothing drives, but most of all he said he’d like to see more volunteers hitting the streets with them to widen the patrol’s reach.

“I would love for people to know within the area that between this hours of eight to 12 on a Friday, that we’re out there,” Crazyboy said. “We’re on the ground, in the streets, in the alleys, we’re in the community, so people would feel safe.”
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