Calgary Transit’s Community Outreach Team - Compassionately supporting vulnerable individuals on and around our Transit system
In 2018, Calgary Transit started a pilot program called the Transit Community Outreach Team (COT). In its infancy, COT was a partnership of one Transit peace officer and one outreach worker from the Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership (DOAP) team from ALPHA house. Its mandate was to connect Calgary's most vulnerable Transit users with services.
Four years later, that lone Transit peace officer, Sergeant Kitty Aalders, leads a COT team staffed by four officers. Each officer continues to partner with a DOAP member.
Aalders explains why the COT team's work is so important. "All the services for people experiencing homelessness or addiction are downtown, but our clients are located all over the city. Clients not located downtown often refuse to go there, so they cannot access services. We meet our clients wherever they feel most comfortable – both physically and mentally," Aalders explains.
This proactive work not only assists the individual in the moment, but it also reduces the load on emergency services resources and increases public safety. In other words, it is a win-win for everyone.
On average, each month, the COT team connects with more than 300 individuals, filling out 21 housing assessments and completing 88 agency referrals. Officers advocate for clients, help them to attend appointments and connect them with detox treatment and healthcare. The COT team works closely with Calgary Police Services (CPS). Often, the COT team and CPS teams deal with the same clients. These individuals may be the victims of hate crimes, a missing person who has ended up on Transit, or someone whose behavior on the Transit system is generating regular concerns raised by other riders.
"It can take 15 to 20 interactions before a person experiencing homelessness or addiction finally trusts someone in a uniform. Once we have built that trust, we can start to help put these individuals on a path to a better life."
The COT team has helped many people over the years, but Aalders shares the story of one client that best explains why she loves her job.
"A few years ago, we were engaging with Richard, an elderly male who was a Vietnam war veteran. He was addicted to alcohol and ended up intoxicated on a train daily. Each time I spoke with Richard, he became emotional as he missed his family. He didn't know where they were or if his brother was still alive.
"One day, Richard ended up in the hospital, and we visited him two or three times per week. While he was in the hospital, Richard became sober, and we could have a better conversation. He told me his son's name, and I asked Richard if he wanted to get in touch with him. With his permission, I went on social media and sent a message to a person I thought might be Richard's son. Immediately, I received a call back. I learned that the son had expected never to speak with his dad again. He believed he would only hear something once his father passed away. I had better news. His dad was alive and hoping to get in touch. Together with the hospital's social worker, we helped the son travel from Manitoba to pick up his dad and take him home. Richard lived his last years with his brother, son, and grandkids. Richard was no longer a daily call for service on Transit, which is a great outcome, but I believe the best part of this story is that Richard was able to reconnect with his family," says Aalders.