Wolfville town staff take harm-reduction training as homeless population grows

A spokesperson for the Town of Wolfville says members of the parks department requested support after interacting with more unhoused people while on the job.  (Josh Hoffman - image credit)
A spokesperson for the Town of Wolfville says members of the parks department requested support after interacting with more unhoused people while on the job. (Josh Hoffman - image credit)

Town staff and council members in Wolfville, N.S., have taken harm-reduction training in an effort to be more empathetic toward the community's growing homeless population, a city official said.

Approximately 20 members of the parks and public works departments were trained by the Peer Outreach Support Services and Education (POSSE) Project, said Barb Shaw, manager of communication and strategic initiatives.

Wolfville Mayor Wendy Donovan, councillors Jennifer Ingram and Isabel Madeira-Voss and Shaw also participated in the training, she said.

There were at least 231 adults, plus their children, experiencing homelessness between West Hants and Digby in 2022, according to a report from Homeless No More, a non-profit rural advocacy organization.

At least 116 lived in Kings County and 112 people accessed services in the neighbouring community of Kentville, N.S.

Shaw spoke to CBC News about the decision to provide harm-reduction training to staff and council members.

Why did the Town of Wolfville want to get these staff members trained by the POSSE Project?

As you're no doubt aware, like other towns and municipalities across, not only, Nova Scotia but across the country, we are seeing an increase in folks in our community who are unhoused. And it first came through from a staff perspective. There was a request for some support in just allowing staff to understand how we can be using a really empathetic trauma-informed approach with folks who might need additional supports in our community that we're interacting with on a daily basis.

How did staff find themselves interacting with people who are experiencing homelessness?

Even from a couple of summers ago when we had folks who were sleeping rough in Reservoir Park, it is our park staff who are out doing maintenance and are kind of really running into these folks on a regular basis. So, it was a real desire to be able to respond with empathy, obviously trying to understand what are we supposed to do as town staff when people are setting up home in public spaces? What is the response and how do we ensure that we're interacting in a way that's showing the support and tenderness and just awareness that everybody should be included in our community.

What did the training involve? 

It was really looking at everything from some of the challenges that folks face when they are unhoused, some of the trauma that they might have been exposed to, understanding how trust is not necessarily going to be an easy thing to build. And with everything that we were doing, understanding that the approach we need to take is about harm-reduction. So if somebody is choosing to stay in a tent, what can we do to ensure that we honour and respect it?

What was some of the feedback from staff and council? What stood out to them about this training?

It helped to kind of shift the perspective and to understand that if somebody does become unhoused, it's likely not the first trauma that they have experienced but also understanding that every day they are living in a precarious situation that additional traumas are basically being experienced. So I think for the staff it was just really that reminder of equity, right? We have to challenge ourselves to understand that everybody in our community is different.

What else is the Town of Wolfville doing to address this problem?

We're working really closely with Open Arms. Open Arms are the experts in our region. They are offering shelter. They are really working with the unhoused folks in a way that we are not equipped to do at this time. So we're trying to keep folks connected that way. We're incredibly lucky. Our public library and the staff there have been a tremendous support creating safe, welcoming spaces. And then again, just with the staff who took the time to get some training and to really kind of challenge ourselves to what our approach is. We're just taking those steps day by day, again, really focusing on equity, focusing on inclusion and ensuring that all folks in our community are treated well as we can be treating them.