Director Mathew Welsh and manager Nic Fieldsend are the driving forces behind a unique production company
Flight of the NavigatorBy Michelle Brunet | Jul 13, 2012
Tags: E.J. Davis
E.J. Davis is the face of a program helping the people who “fall through the cracks”.
Outside the Spring Garden Road Library, E.J. Davis immediately bumps into somebody he knows. “I have to go to my probation meeting,” a 20-something man says. “Do you need some bus tickets?” Davis replies taking two orange tickets out of his pocket.
“How about 50 cents for a smoke?” the young man asks. “Smile extra big and someone might help you out,” Davis laughs and gets a dimpled grin in return.
Davis is a social worker and the sole staff member of Navigator Street Outreach, a program developed and supported by the Spring Garden Area Business Association (SGABA) and the Downtown Halifax Business Commission (DHBA). Initiated by Bernie Smith, then manager of SGABA, and now in its fourth year, its mission is to “work with street-involved and homeless individuals to cultivate their true potential to be engaged, healthy and contributing members of the community…”
The two business commissions supply Davis with offices, but he rarely uses them. Instead he walks the downtown streets and alleys meeting new and existing clients, who he refers to as “folks.” Otherwise, Davis goes to shelters and drop-ins like ARK and Sister Jo’s, delivers workshops to local businesses, tracks down resources or takes individuals to see prospective apartments.
Walking up Spring Garden Road, Davis constantly runs into street people he knows by name. He stops to ask about their day or crack a joke. He wants to be a constant presence so folks know they can come to him when they are looking for employment, housing, health or other supports. While he walks, he replies to numerous phone calls and texts from clients, agencies and even someone looking for a reference. “A lot of our panhandlers are pretty quiet, not really in your face unless they’re sick or they’re hopped up on something,” says Davis after chatting with a regular.
Whether it’s helping people get proper identification, a bank account, work clothes, transportation, training courses or a cell phone, Davis overcomes barriers to employment daily. “If they find work, we run a lunch program,” he adds. “I pay folks $12 a day until their first pay because folks who are homeless or in a shelter normally eat at soup kitchens and food banks during the day.”
Davis is often able to provide these services quickly. For example, due to a partnership with Laing House, he can provide someone with work boots that same day so they can start work the next. A requisition sent to Community Services might take a month or more.
Davis remembers recently going into a local restaurant and finding the entire kitchen staff was made up of former clients. One of the men, who had been in and out of shelters for years, was now leaving shortly for Vancouver to run his own kitchen. Inspired, the Navigator Program has just begun a pilot program, “Second Helping,” in partnership with the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia where street-involved youth can start a culinary apprenticeship of sorts.
The Navigator program relies on funding from grants, such as those from the Department of Justice and the Halifax Assistance Fund, but a major portion is paid for by the businesses. Joanne Macrae, co-founder of The Hub and board member of DHBA, appreciates having Davis as a support. “We’ve been downtown for a little over three years now and we’ve never had any problems with anyone, but it’s just been helpful when we notice that somebody might be having a difficult time,” she says.
When she saw a downtown regular acting agitated, she asked Davis to check in. “Maybe you have to have a more human conversation with that someone so you can resolve the situation in a more person-to-person way,” says Macrae.
“A lot of people would fall through the cracks if it wasn’t for E.J. helping them,” says Kurt Bulger, co-owner of Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia. “If they’re out of the house by 15 or 16 for whatever reason, there’s nobody there to send them in the right direction. All these agencies are so disjointed. Nobody needs to go hungry or homeless in this town. It’s all there for them.” Bulger says that Davis helps them find these supports.
Outside Park Lane Mall, Davis points out a bearded man walking quickly through the crowd. “That gentleman is very sick,” he says. “He has been wandering the streets for the last six weeks, un-medicated and he won’t engage with anyone.” He and the MOSH (Mobile Outreach Street Health) team keep an eye on people like that, even if they’re not comfortable having a conversation just yet.
Davis goes out with MOSH nurses like Patti Melanson every Wednesday night. They pass out water, warm socks or energy bars; dress wounds; help with prescriptions and visit shelters and rooming houses. “E.J. can often tell very quickly if someone is perhaps not taking their medication or if they have had an unfortunate incident like losing an apartment,” Melanson says. “He is acutely aware of other struggles people may have like addiction and knows when that condition may be worsening.”
Davis has been in the social profession for 16 years. Moving to Halifax eight years ago, he worked for Phoenix Centre for Youth and Metro Turning Point before becoming the Navigator. What motivates him to continue doing what he does is the “one in a hundred success stories”.
“I have to be careful not to choke up because I do that a lot these days,” Davis laughs, recalling a recent triumph. A man who had been a street drinker for more than a decade was finally getting effective treatment. He was approved for an out-of-province, long-term program and committed to remaining clean for three weeks before departing. (In Nova Scotia there are no long-term programs beyond a 30-day session in Middleton). Odds were long, but he kept his promise.
“Miraculously, through sheer will, he managed to get on the plane 10 days ago,” Davis says. “It was MOSH, myself, his addictions counsellor, his probation officer and some family who supported him,” says Davis. “As a street drinker you usually cycle through homelessness, through jails or you end up dead. There are very few times when supports align at that point when they are ready to make that change.”
The Navigator program’s April 2011 to February 2012 report provides some illuminating statistics. During that period, Davis worked with 260 different clients (54 per cent homeless). He provided employment support to 40, transportation to 86, employed 53 as street sweepers and helped 78 access health resources. From September 2011 to February 2012, he helped 28 people get stable jobs and 13 housing. The Navigator Street Outreach program, SGABA and DHBA received the Leadership in Crime Prevention award by provincial Justice Minister Ross Landry in March.
Macrae thinks of the possibilities if government and business devoted more funds to this type of street-level work: “What would happen if we could have two of E.J. or three of E.J.?”
As for Davis, he feels that each of us can help fight poverty and homelessness. He recommends researching a specific part of the problem where you see a need, and then find out who can help. “To me it’s just about becoming involved in the bigger, community sense,” he says. “I don’t think it has to be specific to the Navigator program. Figure out where your actual interests lie and become a part of the network.”
Learn more at www.facebook.com/StreetoutreachR.