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Downtown 'ambassadors' offer support to city's vulnerable

Local outreach worker shares his inside story of what it's like to be homeless, mentally ill and addicted in Sault Ste. Marie
David Cartner, a lead with the Downtown Ambassador Program, works to help people who are homeless.

For David Cartner, working as an outreach worker and lead in the Downtown Ambassador Program isn't just a job. It's his life's work.

We caught up with the 62-year-old peer support worker from the Canadian Mental Health Association at a Save Our Young Adults (SOYA) event Wednesday that marked International Overdose Awareness Day.

"I would love for anybody in this city to take a walk with me in the alleyways downtown here and see what the amazing group I work with sees on an everyday basis," he said. "It’s a nightmare. It truly is a nightmare."

In May, the Canadian Mental Health Association, in partnership with the City of Sault Ste. Marie and the Downtown Association, started a one-year street outreach pilot program. They called it the Downtown Ambassador Program.

It's a street outreach and peer support group that aims to minimize harm, supply resources to the city's most vulnerable people and give referrals where needed.

Downtown Ambassadors also give directions and information to tourists.

Cartner's primary interest lies in helping people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness, addiction or any combination of those.

He relates to them, meeting them where they live and brings only compassion, not judgment or demands. He finds that most of them are young and traumatized.

"They’re invisible people and a lot of them come from very traumatic incidents at home," he said. "For some of them, it’s the mental illness that drives them out to the streets. A lot of these kids are traumatized."

His compassion and empathy helps him accept them and treat them fairly.

"If you’re a parent with a teenager, you know how rough it can be just with that, and add mental illness on top of that and it’s very difficult," Cartner said. "A lot of parents just are not able to cope with it. We always tend to look for the fault. Who’s at fault here? Why is this happening?

"I don’t believe there is a fault. I don’t think that you can point a finger at anybody in this situation. I truly believe some addiction comes from bad choices, some of it comes from a wanting to escape the reality of abuse and neglect and hopelessness."

His compassion also comes from his own life experiences. He learned it through his own battles with addiction and from the examples of the people who helped him.

"I was one of these people in my younger days. I was a drunk for 35 years. When I finally decided to get help, it came out of the woodwork. People were amazing and they helped me and they kept me on the right track. Because of their help and their insistence that I could do this myself, I have now been clean and sober for seven years."

Now he's found a way to give back through the Downtown Ambassador Program.

He has also stayed humble and focused on the people he's trying to help.

"I felt this was something I had to do to give back.

"I received these amazing gifts, and by the grace of God, I survived. I’m still here.

"A lot of people don’t get to see the other side of addiction. They don’t get to the sober side of addiction and it’s very scary, so, if I can help one person out of the multitude of the people I see every single day, then I feel like my life is worth something. I feel like I have accomplished something."

He measures success in interactions and views every conversation or intervention as an opportunity to help the people he finds on the streets feel a little bit better. He hopes to plant a seed that will grow into their own desire to help themselves fight their addictions and cope with their mental illnesses successfully. Sometimes, it's as simple as stopping and talking with them — just seeing them as human beings.

"‘Help’ can be showing concern and just talking to the person," he said. "Just spending a few minutes talking to the person. A lot of these kids go days, weeks, without anybody paying any attention to them. They have no human contact. Like, who wants to hug a person that’s been on the streets for a while? They’ll be dirty.

"Well, I will. That’s what water and soap are for, after."

The people Cartner and the other ambassadors help appreciate the ear to hear them, eyes to see them and sustenance to share with them. But Cartner knows this isn't a solution to the problem of homelessness and drug addiction.

He would like to see a round table set up with the city, local agencies working on the front lines, Algoma Public Health and the hospital.

"A lot of these kids are afraid to go to the hospital because of the way they'll be treated there," he said. "Last winter we found a young girl on Gore Street with no shoes and no clothes. She just had a blanket wrapped around her. She had been dropped off there after being released from the hospital.

"The ladies at the Compassion Hub were good enough to go and get her and bring her in and they probably saved her life that night because she would have frozen."

Real solutions to the problem are needed. Resources among the agencies downtown are stretched paper thin and groups like the Compassion Hub, SOYA and Lodge 137, Pauline's Place and the Verdi are doing the best they can with what they have. This also applies to city agencies like Sault Ste. Marie Housing and DSSMSSAB (social services).

"There’s not one agency in this city that is not up against a wall. The worst feeling in the world for me is having some young person come up to me and say: ‘I need help,’ and I can’t help them.

"What do I tell a 65-year-old woman that has spent the last month living on our streets when she comes to me and says: ‘I need help, I need a place to stay,' and I can’t help her? It’s such a hopeless, gut-wrenching feeling."

But Cartner and the others like him serving the community will not be dissuaded. They support each other, he said. They see when people are starting to feel too helpless and remind them of why they do what they do. They do their best to revive the hope in their fellow front-line workers.

One thing that is especially concerning for Cartner is the amount of people who will still be homeless come winter. "We are going to lose people," he said. 

"Right now, within the City of Sault Ste. Marie, there’s a push to move these people out of the downtown area, from what I’ve seen," Cartner said. "They’re feeling lost because they don’t have a place to be in the first place.

"We understand that when they are down here, there’s a lot of dangers and a big mess but we need to come up with a solution. We need to talk to the people that are in charge and we need to find a solution for these people.

"Give them back the basic dignity of having a place to shower, to use the washroom. I always say to my friends, when they say a lot of them make a choice: ‘Would you choose to have to go to the bathroom in a lane-way, with no toilet paper, no place to clean up?’ Nobody chooses that. Your dignity gets crushed.

"We had a space in the downtown, here, that was always packed with people that are homeless and people that are addicted and they used to watch out for each other.

"Now that they’ve been moved out of there and pushed into the lane-ways, people are using alone.

"I have yet to find a young woman within the group of people we deal with downtown that has not been beaten or raped. And we’re talking young women. To me, it’s heartbreaking."

He understands that people in the Sault are frustrated. That they're tired of their cars being broken into, their yards being ransacked, vandalized and their property stolen by these people. But he wants there to be understanding and hopes for compassion.

"I really do think that the fear is legitimate because you do not know about the situation you’re dealing with and everything must be approached with an air of caution.

"But that being said, these are just people. These are sick people.

"Every single one of them that I’ve run into has mental health issues. Some of them are not so bad. Some are so bad that it’s incredible that they’re still on the face of this earth and some of them are not. I’ve buried people I tried to help."

He also urges community members who are feeling the brunt of this crisis to be compassionate.

"We are going to lose people this coming winter. And it’s something that is 100 per cent completely preventable," he said. "We could do something about this. People need to be aware of what’s going on and they need to get angry.

"We’re all tired of people coming into our backyards and stealing our stuff. What people do not understand [is that] in a lot of these cases, they’re doing this because their life is in danger.

"They owe drug money and they’re told that, if they don’t do this, they are going to be killed. And they have been killed.

"The community needs to come together and be more aware. We need a neighbourhood watch that is not full of vigilantes looking to beat people who are homeless. By all means, throw them off your property, but [remember] these people are sick [and frightened]."

The Downtown Ambassadors Program is doing well and Cartner is hopeful it will not only be renewed in the spring but be expanded.

He reminds people that addiction doesn't start at Pim and end at Gore. It is everywhere, and it sometimes where you least expect it.

Other communities have found creative and effective solutions to homelessness and he knows there are people in this community with the ideas needed to bring those solutions home. 

In addition to treating people more compassionately, he urges people to volunteer with or donate to any of the good frontline agencies we have. 

And, if you're thirsty, hungry, looking for directions or just someone to talk to, look for the teams of two with big backpacks wandering the downtown streets of Sault Ste. Marie. 

Cartner will be one of them, ready to help in whatever way he can.