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Outreach van rolls on new wheels

Nancy McInnis does a lot in a five-hour shift.As a counsellor on the No Fixed Address outreach van, McInnis and an attending nurse have patched up…

Nancy McInnis does a lot in a five-hour shift.

As a counsellor on the No Fixed Address outreach van, McInnis and an attending nurse have patched up stab wounds, helped battered women flee abusive boyfriends, fed hungry families, helped an elderly man control his diabetes and encouraged countless addicts to kick their habits.

It’s all in an evening’s work.

With $153,000 in operating money from the territorial government, that work will now be more frequent.

The outreach van has expanded its service to six nights a week and is now running from Monday to Saturday, from 4 to 9 p.m.

In the past, it ran between two and four nights a week, depending on staff and resources available.

With a $20,000 territorial grant that’s been matched by Ottawa, it also bought a new set of wheels — a 2001 Ford Econoline van — to replace the aging clunker that was running on its last pistons.

“It’s with a little bit of sadness that we put ‘Old Yeller’ down because that van got us to where we are today,” said veteran volunteer Sheila Rose, who has been making sandwiches for the van since the service began five years ago.

Since 2001, the van has run on volunteer support and donations from the government and community.

“It’s been very challenging over the past five years to try and cobble together a service that requires so many resources,” said Yukon Family Services director Marilyn Wolovick.

She was one of 10 people who pressed Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers for funding last year.

On a typical night a nurse and a counsellor staff the van. The shift begins with the team loading the van with medical supplies.

Then the van makes stops around the city at places like Yukon Family Services, Tim Hortons, Starbucks and Zola’s to pick up food and coffee donations.

The van stocks clean water, insulin, toothpaste and warm clothing, and other items people need to stay healthy, like clean hypodermic needles, sharps containers, condoms and safe crack cocaine kits.

The van’s route begins in Porter Creek, Kopper King and the Kwanlin Dun area, then heads downtown and stops at some hotels and bars.

“They expect us at the hotels we go to — if we’re not there they’ll call us and ask when we’re coming because they rely on the food,” said McInnis.

Several families living on social assistance and minimum wage depend on food the van provides.

“We don’t have a living wage and social assistance rates haven’t gone up in years, so they need that extra support to make ends meet,” said McInnis.

“That’s a mom and a dad that know their kids will be fed that night and they won’t be going to bed hungry.”

In addition to its regular route, the van also responds to individual calls for things like food, clean needles, counseling and medical care.

Between 70 and 90 people use the van each night. Each has different needs.

In any given shift there are people who require counseling — sometimes it means simply checking in on a sick elder and sometimes it means the difference between life and death.

“Some clients will call when they’re in distress and if they’re feeling suicidal,” said McInnis.

“That’s when counsellors stop by and, if need be, we’ll call an ambulance to make sure they’re going to be safe for the night.”

At the end of the night, the staff parks the van, logs their experiences and drops used needles off at the hospital for safe disposal.

In the past seven weeks the van has issued 7,000 needles.

It recovers more needles than it gives out. It estimates a 140-per-cent return rate.

The van also hands out more than 25 safe crack kits each night.

The kits contain metal crack-pipe screens, lip balm (to prevent open sores and hepatitis C transmission), and a plastic pipe tip that’s meant for one-time use.

Smoking crack is safer than shooting it into your arm. So the goal is to steer users towards smoking, then slowly wean them off the drug altogether.

“If they’re going to be using we’d much rather have them inhaling it via the pipe rather than injecting it — for their own safety, said McInnis.

“All of our interventions are targeted at reducing use or safer use.”

Getting users to quit takes time, so the workers tackle it step by step.

They only hand out one kit per person, per night.

“You can’t get one for your friend because that defeats our purpose. We want to meet each person and encourage them in a positive direction.”

McInnis, who has been working with the program for a little over a year, concentrates on building a relationship with the van’s clients.

For a year she tried to get one young crack user to go for coffee with her.

But the young woman kept refusing.

“They’re really shy because they know it’s a leap — it means they’re asking for help.”

Sometimes it’s a long process and sometimes it pays off.

Finally, in January, the young woman called McInnis looking for a new tube of toothpaste, and that was all it took.

They’ve been meeting ever since.

“She was using crack three or four times a week; now she’s down to once or twice a month,” said McInnis.

“You see those moments when people are moving towards health and they are so rewarding,” she said.

To volunteer with the No Fixed Address outreach van call 334-1650. To access the van’s services call 334-1647.

See related story on page 3.

Contact Leighann