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New community group is building bridges with the downtown homeless community

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“Good morning, it’s Bob From Street Light.”

Bob Cameron, the executive director of the Downtown Windsor Community Collaborative (DWCC) and co-founder of Street Light, introduces himself to someone living in a makeshift shelter made out of tarps at Charles Clark Square during a walk-about Monday morning.

“You’re OK? Warm enough?” he asks. 

They don’t feel like chatting, but Cameron leaves them two juice boxes and a snack next to their shelter.

Along with a team of community volunteers, he’s leading a new outreach initiative to connect with members of Windsor’s homeless community in the downtown core. 

Since September, three days a week, the team members pack up their backpacks full of snacks, gift cards, bus tickets, hygiene products, clothes and hand warmers and walk around the city centre. The goal is to get to know people — if they’re willing to chat — and supply them with what they say they need in the hopes of building bridges and relationships while helping to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“We’re neighbours,” Cameron said. “How do we love our neighbours of no fixed address?”

Compassion and empathy

The initiative was born out of DWCC’s already existing RE/ACT Windsor-Essex, a recovery education program for those struggling with addictions and trauma, as well as the DWCC’s participation in the Windsor-Essex Community Opioid and Substance Strategy.  The group wanted to start directly reaching out to those living on the streets in an effort to better understand them and help provide supports, without duplicating efforts that already exist in the community.

Street Light volunteers, Tony Farah, Arunita Jaekel, Singa Song and Co-founder Bob Cameron say their work with the group is an eye-opening and rewarding experience. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Cameron explained that the DWCC has been in consultation with Pozitive Pathways, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, the Downtown Mission and police as well. They’re also in the process of getting training on the use of naloxone and de-escalation practices should a situation arise. Cameron carries naloxone in his backpack on every walk-about though he has not yet had to use it.

A key part of the DWCC’s mission is to change people’s perspectives on how they view people who live on the streets, shifting feelings of anger and frustration to ones of compassion and empathy. 

Cameron explained that they’ve also started inviting individuals to drop by at a few different locations downtown and access their RE/ACT recovery introduction program providing them with a curriculum to start working through trauma. It’s currently being piloted in the hopes of expanding it on a daily basis.

So far, the response to the walk-abouts has been “very positive,” Cameron said, adding that relationships are getting built over time.

“They realize, oh, this is a person who genuinely cares, is trying to figure out how to care, and then folks open up so they’ll start talking, and sharing their story. They finally found someone who’s willing just to listen.”

Response from the community

Chris Lebouf has been homeless since last October. He appreciated the Street Light team checking in on him. 

WATCH | Chris Lebouf shares what it’s been like not having a home for more than a year:

Chris LeBouf say she has been without a home since October of last year.

“It was good,” he said. “They saved me a 45-minute bike ride in this freakin’ weather, gave me a bus ticket and some hand warmers. They’re cold right now.”

He said he also appreciated their efforts because he used to do community service work himself, but can’t do that any more due to his health. 

He stays at the Downtown Mission and says it’s been a hard year without a home.

The Street Light team walks around the downtown core three times a week in an effort to build relationships with individuals who are dealing with homelessness. (Michael Evans/CBC)

“We need more housing,” he stressed.

He’s on an affordable housing wait list with the City of Windsor.

As of July, there were 6,300 households waiting for a home.

‘Very rewarding’

Making these connections has made an impact on the team itself. 

“That’s changing me,” Cameron explained as he better understands the individuals he interacts with.

Street Light volunteers stopped by to visit the individual sheltering themselves in this makeshift home. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

“It’s been good, emotionally good and hard in some ways,” explained volunteer Arunita Jaekel. 

“You hear the numbers and the statistics but until you see it up close it sometimes doesn’t impact you that much. So it has been very impactful for me and you know just as I get to know some of the people, you see them multiple times and get to know them, it’s been very rewarding as well just connecting with them and building that relationship.”

For Tony Farah, his first time volunteering with Street Light was eye opening. 

“I’m learning and I like it so far.”

Singa Song has been volunteering for three weeks so far and says she loves it. 

“I’m happy,” she said. “Because I can do something [for] other people.”

Chris Lebouf has been living without a home since last October. He says he’s on a wait list for affordable housing. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

The group currently has about a dozen volunteers participating but more are welcome to join. 

Cameron explained that the project is still in the early stages and he hopes that over the next year, by collecting stories and gaining a better perspective, the team will be able to have an even better sense of how to support individuals who need it.

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