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MAY 2020

Community 101 Goes (Facebook) LIVE!

Join us for our first virtual Community 101 Thursday, May 28 when we ask the question: What are the questions we should be asking ourselves at this time?

This interactive event will feature the reflections of panelists Elizabeth Palermo - writer, mother, community connector; Rick Beaver - artist, naturalist and member of Alderville First Nation; and Kerri Kightley - homelessness strategist and Green Wood Coalition board member, with a guest appearance by poet Carol Anne Bell-Smith.

Moderator Rev. Neil Ellis will collect online comments and questions from the chat box to share with the panelists over the one-hour discussion. It all begins at 7:00 p.m.on Green Wood Coalition’s Facebook page, live, from your home!

Every day, Nicole Whitmore steps into forgotten and hidden places to deliver supplies, comfort and, ultimately, save lives. Where once people living in poverty, experiencing physical and mental health challenges and addiction got by with the help of friends, food banks, rides to a clinic, today they hide. The streets are bare, public buildings and washrooms are closed, and the homeless and hurting have retreated.

“This is what the pandemic has done -- really pushed people out and exposed them,” says Green Wood Coalition’s outreach and addictions worker. “People don’t want to be seen. They’re really appreciative I can bring them supplies every week, so they don’t have to feel the shame of being stared at because they’re not wearing a mask or because they’re walking in groups. Everybody would notice three guys walking to the pharmacy every couple of days to pick up needles.

“So for us, at Green Wood, it’s ‘what can we do to keep people safe and not be swallowed up by the stigma of addiction during COVID-19?’”

The human cost of hiding

Isolation is dangerous in the world of illicit drugs, which increasingly come poisoned with Carfentanil and other unknown substances that can turn a minimal dose lethal. Last month, two Northumberland County residents died from overdoses. Naloxone, the opioid antidote, can’t be self-administered, so it’s of little help if you’re using drugs alone.

Thirteen years ago Nicole was living a life much like the people she supports. She was an IV drug user, homeless and isolated from her family and hometown. Every day tested her will to live; survival was a monumental effort.

“Nobody’s happy. No one wants to live like that. Every single person gets tired of being in survival mode 24/7. They don’t want to lose everything. They don’t want to feel utterly alone. They want a normal life, but normal seems so far in the distance because there’s so much trauma to work through.”

Surviving the pandemic In formal circles, a lot of Nicole’s work is called Harm Reduction. Checking in on about 20 people each week delivering food, soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, Naloxone kits and exchanging new needles for used, she’s focused on keeping people safe. She passes on alerts about dangerous drugs that could be circulating and makes sure people know whom to call if they develop COVID symptoms. And they talk -- conversations that are “extra tough” these days. “Just imagine. These are people who are trying to survive. They had the normal -- their normal -- things they were coping with prior to COVID 19, which is trauma, emotional pain, mental health and addictions. All of that plus homelessness, and then you piggyback a pandemic onto that. “We can talk about housing and maybe doing this and that toward their recovery, but when everything is closed or resources are very limited, how do you keep this spark alive until the end of the pandemic when, maybe, you can do something? “I keep trying to light a beacon, a candle of hope.”

If we can’t relate, we can’t understand

To some, her work is heroic; to others, misguided.

“I think people objecting to harm reduction don’t understand that the root causes of addiction go much deeper than an initial choice a person makes to use substances. It’s the reason people had to make that choice we should be looking at.

“There are people out there who’ve come up against some serious stuff, but they had a healthy support system and a healthy way of being able to process and cope with it. Not everyone has that. For the person experiencing addiction, at some point something happened they couldn’t cope with. The emotional pain was overflowing, and they needed to numb it.

“I wish we treated people with substance dependency like we treat our children if they have pain we can’t see. If a child is in pain and crying and has behaviour issues because of their pain, but we can’t see where it’s coming from and they aren’t able to express that, we do everything to try to figure it out. I wish we had that kind of mentality when it came to people with addictions. They’re in pain. We just can’t see it.”

A new normal

Think back a few months, before COVID-19 commandeered our lives. Green Wood, which for 10 years was known mostly as a Port Hope charity, had expanded its street outreach into Cobourg to address its growing homeless and opioid crises. So, for Nicole, what she does hasn’t changed, just how she does it.

“This, to me, feels like it’s going to be my new norm. You can’t expect people to just go and get the supplies they need to stay safe, so my connection with folks has increased. The most important part is building relationships, and we’ve managed to do that really successfully, and we’ll continue to do that beyond this pandemic."

“Because this will pass, and we’re going to get through this together.”

[We appreciate the financial partnership of Northumberland United Way and PARN in this work.]

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