Meet Wendy Noll: Welcoming Streets Peer Outreach Worker
Meet Wendy Noll, the Welcoming Streets Peer Outreach Worker for the downtown core in Guelph. Wendy has been working in the field of addiction personally and professionally for over 20 years. As part of the mental health outreach team in Hamilton, she did the van needle exchange program. She also worked some weekend contract work in Guelph several years ago with Canadian Mental Health Association. More recently Wendy taught Addiction Education at a college in Mississauga, then went to another college to design the curriculum for their Addiction program, acting as their faculty head and instructor for 10 years. Now she’s back doing front line work again and says she’s loving it. “This project encompasses educational components and interactive street work as well, so I get the best of both worlds” she smiles.
The Guelph Welcoming Streets Initiative is a 5 month pilot project resulting from an innovative partnership between the Guelph Police, the Downtown Business Association, and the Guelph Community Health Centre. Wendy explains that there are a couple of components involved in being a peer outreach worker for this project. “I’m building rapport with the street entrenched population and I’m also supporting the businesses in the downtown core”.
And what does that look like?
Wendy provides businesses with education such as engagement, de-escalation and community building skills, believing that when we are presented with opportunities to learn and grow, both interpersonally through community and through intrapersonal shifts in how we view the world, a fertile ground can be built to birth a strongly rooted, healthy system.
She also ensures businesses know about available training opportunities that they can pursue independently and provides them with support so they feel a little more safe and connected.
“My hope”, shares Wendy, “is to bridge the street entrenched population and the businesses and the gap that exists between them, building inclusiveness”.
When asked how businesses are responding to her role so far, Wendy replies “For the majority, they’re really good and really like the educational component because they want to learn how to be more supportive towards the street population. They want to understand. They want to know how they can help. If they’re struggling and don’t know how to de-escalate or re-direct a client, they like that we can provide more opportunities to learn those skills”.
How are the folks that HOPE House and downtown partnered services serve responding to Wendy’s role as Community Outreach Worker? How is Wendy building relationships?
Wendy explains “I just meet them where they’re at. I’m on the street .They’re very receptive to me. Sometimes it’s just a matter of engagement where I just ask if I can sit with them and sometimes I’m in silence. Sometimes it’s connecting them to a resource, sometimes it helping them out with food… in the moment, on the spot. But a lot of my work is being able to build that rapport so I can de-escalate situations.
And in my experience people don’t get angry or escalated for no reason at all. There’s usually some trigger point, or there’s an underlying core need that’s not being met. So my insight is to listen very attentively and to find out what that need is.
When you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs usually it’s something like food, shelter, heat, cold, exhaustion…it’s some kind of typical ailment. Sometimes they just need to vent and have someone listen to them and not be judged if they’re yelling or screaming because anger is a common emotion, right?
You know, we’d be empathetic if they were crying, can we not have some understanding and knowledge about anger? I’ve got an intense background working with doctors specializing in anger, rage, and violence so I understand that anger usually points to pain and masks pain”.
Then there’s issues of mental health and addiction.
Wendy, who is in recovery and celebrating 18 years of sobriety, can self-disclose a message of hope – If I can do it, you can do it too. “I can build rapport with them a lot quicker and come to them from a place of my own lived experience. I’ve had people come up to me… “Ah, are you just talking book theory or do you have any experience in this?” and I can say, ‘Yes I do’ but I’m also very professional”.
Wendy hopes to educate businesses about addiction, too. “It’s a hidden disability. I always come back to, if all of these folks had cancer or diabetes or whatever chronic illness, how would we treat them? Addiction is an illness. How do we treat it? There is no miracle solution at this point, but I believe that there is strength in numbers. There’s an old cliché that states ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and that’s my hope and goal – that this community can be a model for other cities, that we look at this, not with an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that wants to ship people off, but as a community that asks ‘how can we help?’”
As a team of one Wendy admits her role can be “tough” and “overwhelming”. “This is a very, very demanding and exhausting job” she shares. But she also knows that her role as Peer Outreach Worker is unique and necessary.
“I know there are a couple of other cities that are doing something similar, but the business outreach side of this is very unique and, to my knowledge, new. But it’s much needed. I’m one person supporting 600 businesses and approximately 300 clients. I’m not solely supporting 300, but that’s about how many people who are homeless can be found in the downtown core and need supports. Honestly, we need to expand to include 5 to 10 of us”.
We at HOPE House couldn’t agree more. We applaud Wendy for the immense and important work she is doing and sincerely hope and advocate for sustaining and expanding the Downtown Peer Outreach team.