Bear Clan Patrol: community people working with community people
by Kimiko Karpoff
It’s Friday evening. An eclectic group of people gathers at Silver Spire United Church. They are preparing to spend the next several hours together roaming the streets of St. Catharines. This is not a parade, not a street party. This is Bear Clan Patrol.
Karen Orlandi is both a minister with Silver Spire United and a CCS student. Last fall as she walked with Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol as part of a class on Ministry as Community Building she recognized its potential for her own community. When she returned to St. Catharines she used the capacity her position in the church gave her to seed the way for this grassroots initiative.
Already active in the community, she looked for opportunities to build relationships with organizations such as the Niagara Regional Native Centre. She credits community partners for really picking up the idea of a St. Catharines Patrol. Karen works closely with Darcy Belanger, of the Niagara Regional Native Centre and community member Fred Bowering, both of whom have experience of homelessness and life on the street. While she provides some leadership, she sees herself more in a supporting role, “happy to do the grunt work.”
Bear Clan Patrol is an Indigenous and community program, despite gathering in a church. While externally the project appears to be about picking up drug paraphernalia, the mission and value of the Bear Clan is much deeper. “The most important part about the Bear Clan is building relationships,” Karen noted. “Yes, we clean up needles and yes, we collect knives and stuff. We hand out protein bars, but that’s not the true core value of what we do. We build relationships.”
The real work happens on the streets. Bear Clan Patrol is about community people working with community people, providing a sense of safety, solidarity and belonging to both its members and to the community they serve. Relationship building and mentorship are key. People joining the group come from all walks of life. Some struggle with addiction, some struggle to know how to support their community in the face of growing disparity and the opioid crisis. For them this is a place of belonging, connection and action. For people they encounter as they walk the streets, it is about being seen and valued — a concrete sign that somebody cares enough to stop and talk. And listen. Karen recalls calling out to someone across the street and going over to talk. “He told us that when we called him by name, he felt seen. Isn’t that what we all need?”
Each evening begins with engagement and training so volunteers know how to be safe and how to approach someone in a relational way. Karen explains an exercise led by Sly, one of the Bear Clan leaders who is Anishinaabe . “You look around a circle and you look at the people. You pick somebody and then you close your eyes and you strip them of everything that makes them that person, until they are just a ball of energy. How do we relate to that innate ball of energy or soul or spirit, whatever you call it? Not to the poverty or privilege you see, not to the clothes, not to the situation that’s happening, but directly to the core of a person?”
Volunteers are also taught to allow conversations they have while on patrol to be driven by the other person. Karen said, “If they don’t want to talk, you don’t make them talk. Our job is to meet people where they are. It’s about accompaniment, it’s not fixing or helping, it’s just being with.”
Karen describes one of the factors that really struck her. “In November in Winnipeg, our patrol lead was 23 years clean and sober. Two of the girls I walked with were less than 30 days. So there was a great deal of mentorship that was happening within the patrol itself. The pride people had when they put on their vests or their jacket or whatever, was amazing, and the value that they felt they brought to their own community, so they were building their own community.”
Bear Patrol St. Catharines did their first patrol in July. Their goal is to expand patrols from Fridays and Saturdays, to more days during the week.