More help for youth at risk

Full program returns

By Joel Ceausu

When it comes to working on the street, two heads and four hands are even better.

Head and Hands is feting the full return of its vital Street Work program, which fell victim to health agency budget cuts in 2011. After a concerted and sustained fundraising initiative, the NDG non-profit organization was able to rehire its street worker Sara last year, and Paul, last month.

The duo toting backpacks filled with clean injection kits, condoms and referral information is the bridge between Head and Hands and vulnerable young people, with a key role in supporting the mental and physical health of youth who are falling through the cracks of Montreal’s increasingly fragile social safety net.

The duo can now reach more in a more meaningful way. “There was no way Sara could reach everyone by herself,” said director Jon McPhedran-Waitzer. But as a pair “they can go where Sara could not go alone, and we can stagger our services, being available earlier in the day and later into the night, to be more available to our clientele and establish more reliable trust-based relationships.”

The program’s $80,000 budget covers the cost of two salaries and more, a paltry amount by major program standards, but an indispensable tool in the neighborhood and no longer supportable by government agencies.

Right now in NDG, a young person may be contemplating suicide; or consider sharing a needle or engage in risky sexual activity, exposing themselves to disease, abuse or addiction. Now, where they are is where society can act, prevent a fatality, or decrease the risk. That’s where Sara and Paul come in, wading into bars, motels, parks, group homes and schools, armed with supplies, materials and strong trust-building and listening skills. It often means going into the shadowed city corners where meeting with a street worker is the only trust-based relationship these young people may ever have.

That takes money.

Securing the cash

“Under current austerity programs all agencies had their budgets reduced,” says Head and Hands Funding and Partnerships coordinator Victoria Pilger. “We were told by the public health agency that there was no way that they can continue to fund us,” she said, so they turned to private fundraising, securing the cash necessary to get Sara and Paul back on the street.

Without a street worker and a non-judgemental, harm-reduction approach, many young people would simply never seek medical or social assistance, says Pilger. “Being rooted at Head and Hands our team will extend the reach of support services and build bridges to youth who might not otherwise walk through our doors.”

“We know that any attempt to tell people what you think they should do or make them behave a certain way usually doesn’t work,” says McPhedran-Waitzer. “It’s precisely because we are non-judgemental and confidential and trustworthy that it works.” The fact that Sara and Paul don’t report to a health agency makes seeking their help more attractive to youth in crisis.

“They are accountable to their clientele,” he says, adding Sara alone interacted with 500 youth in the area, handing out thousands of drug kits and condoms to reduce HIV and Hepatitis-C transmission, and carried out 17 suicide interventions.

Paul says NDG’s challenge differs from other parts of Montreal where poverty and despair is more visible. “We see a lot of gentrification downtown, pushing the homeless and drug users out, and they move into neighbouring areas.” Readily visible in the downtown core, he says, “here it’s usually out of sight, you have to know where to look.”

Though NDG is often perceived as an affluent community says Pilger, “25 percent of our residents live below the poverty line and the income gap here is greater than in any other borough (according to the 2011 census and data from the city of Montreal.)

Head and Hands’ presence since 1970 lends it great credibility in the community which has stepped up its generosity, making it not only possible to reinstate the street work program but continue other work, such as in area schools which often invite Sara in for a drug talk. In keeping with the confidential and non-judgemental approach, that happens without the presence of teachers or administrators. “I tell students what is learned here can be taken outside,” she says. “What is said here stays here.”

For more information about Head and Hands, call [514] 481-0277 or visit

To reach a street worker call [514] 377-9858.
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