People Matter: crisis teams offer kindness, human connection

As the global pandemic creates new pressures at all levels of society, Edmonton’s Crisis Diversion teams are seeing the effects on our most vulnerable community members every day.


“I’m seeing a lot more anger right now,” says Michele, a 24/7 Crisis Diversion worker with Boyle Street Community Services. “Something like this tends to bring out the worst in people a lot of the time. People with jobs are struggling and are angry, so you can imagine people who are struggling with mental health and addiction and such are going to struggle even more.”


The 24/7 Crisis Diversion initiative dispatches crisis diversion teams around the clock, 365 days a year. They respond to people who are in distress and vulnerable on the streets of Edmonton.


The teams offer a human-centred approach to Edmontonians in non-emergency distress.


“Sometimes you just reach out and say ‘you can do this’, and sometimes it pushes that person to search out that help they need,” says Michele.


Before joining the Boyle Street team, she spent 20 years in nursing in a variety of contexts, from ambulances in remote areas to local emergency rooms.


“It’s such a different environment,” she says, laughing. “It’s just so different. It’s awesome really, you meet quite the characters out there.”


Those years in nursing pay off daily in her present work. She can help her clients navigate the health system and has connections that make it a little easier to get people to the services they really need.


“I have connections because I’ve worked in other agencies, so I know them, that’s a bonus. Not everyone can do that,” she says.


These connections allow her to take that extra step, make that phone call, and help get someone the help they need when they’re ready to receive it.


While the work she does is essential, Michelle says the day-to-day work of helping people move in a more positive direction is a multi-agency team effort.


“I honestly I admire all the people that are on the ground working,” she says.  “I’ve seen so many amazing things from them.”


While the job involves more complexity than she may have initially expected, she’s happy to be out on the street every day, helping Edmonton’s most vulnerable.


“When I first started, I thought: ‘I’m going to reach out and touch someone’s fingers and it was going be like angels singing’,” she laughs. “You want to change the world and you hope for that.”


There are many challenges, which can be more intense than in other lines of work.


“There’s violence and abuse - and who ever gets used to that? - but there are those moments that touch you,” she says. “We’ve had a few people come back and say ‘Do you remember me? I ‘m doing so much better’.”


Michelle’s experiences are widely varied, from saving one client from overdose to talking another off a bridge. The only constant is the unpredictability of human behaviour.


“So many people are so grateful for the help,” she says. “It’s kind of neat because you get to know people. You learn how to communicate so much better.”


She finds the skills that are honed doing this complex work transfer seamlessly into daily life.


“It’s a really unique experience. I was at church one day and there was a homeless man in the corner on the grass and I noticed that people are afraid of him,” she says.


“I just walked right up to him, had a conversation and gave him some money for coffee.”


The job has good days and bad days, but in the big picture, the work is always worth doing.


“You can’t imagine. That little bit of kindness means so much, because everywhere they go it’s negative,” she says. “One kind act can change somebody’s life.”


24/7 Crisis Diversion is a collaborative partnership with Boyle Street Community Services, Canadian Mental Health Association (211 program), HOPE Mission, and REACH Edmonton. There are also stakeholders from Edmonton Police Service and Alberta Health Services Emergency Medical Services.


Claire MacDonald,
Program Coordinator
REACH Edmonton

Madeleine Smith,
Co-director Community Initiatives
REACH Edmonton