Red backpacks secured tightly, Megan Grudeski and Britney Smith begin their night on downtown Gaetz Avenue or “the strip” in Red Deer.
They walk for less than 10 minutes before they meet the first client.
A tattered-looking man who arms are laden with tattoos recognized the red backpacks.
The young man, who appears to be in his early 20s, asks for a light.
Smith hands over a pack of matches and a business card.
“Call us if you ever need matches again or anything,” says Grudeski.
Smith writes down his first name, gender, demographic (homeless, sex worker, user etc), supplies distributed and birth year in the log book.
In less than an hour, the duo have handed out harm reduction supplies to a prostitute and a drug user.
They chatted and gave gloves to the homeless and made plans to walk a transient man to the Greyhound bus station.
Grudeski and Smith are NightReach workers.
Every evening, two out of the six NightReach workers spend four to five hours in the downtown core providing support in the way of supplies, face-to-face referrals for housing, treatments, counselling etc, hospital visits and safe walks to the street-involved community.
The Central Alberta AIDS Network Society (CAANS) has operated the program since August 2010.
Ashley Fleming, CAANS’ NightReach program manager, said the night-time staff are the link between night and day.
Fleming said there is no outreach or support available after regular business hours to the street community other than the police or emergency services.
“People do go into crisis after 5 o’clock on Friday and before 9 a.m. on Mondays,” said Fleming. “We are there to be support in the moment and … have an emergency plan in place when the other agencies are opened. We can then be the transition from evening to day.”
The NightReach program is based on a harm reduction strategy of “meeting people where they are at.” Fleming said if their clients are involved in a risky activity, they want to ensure the clients are safe as possible while they are doing it.
“For us, harm reduction is providing supplies to inject drugs more safely, to inhale drugs more safely and to have sex more safely,” said Fleming. “That’s condoms, female condoms, clean needles, stems.”
The street population in Red Deer have come to identify and respect the outreach workers. They might not know the NightReach staff by name but they recognize the red backpack.
It’s not uncommon for NightReach to hear someone shout, “Hey, red backpack,” as they make their rounds on downtown city streets, parks, shelters and bridges.
Such was the case on Friday night when Hilary Gouda, 19, flagged down Grudeski and Smith on their way to McDonalds, a spot where the street community often frequents.
Gouda stops the NightReach to chat and they continue together to the restaurant. Gouda said she has been in and out of foster care and group homes all her life until she was 16 when she decided to “get out of the system.”
She has been homeless for about three years and has battled alcoholism for about seven. Gouda said she has tried to get sober and has gone through detox and treatment programs.
“I want to have my own place,” said Gouda, while sitting at the restaurant. “I want to go back to school. My addiction gets the best of me. I’m a little stuck.”
Grudeski said the NightReach workers are able to connect people with services and other agencies that offer detox treatments and other addiction services above and beyond what they are able to do.
Fleming added there is a street population in Red Deer that wants to be safe. CAANS provides clean needles that people can return when they are used. The needles can be disposed in needle drop boxes in the community or at the CAANS office.
She said the provincial return rate for needles is about 50 per cent.
“Our return rate is 80 per cent so that shows me the people in our community who are injecting drugs really care,” said Fleming. “So they want to come. They want to be safer. They want to use clean materials. So we are here to provide that resource and make sure that happens.”