The social and economic challenges facing Edmonton’s core neighbourhoods are both complex and interconnected. A new approach to providing an on-street presence in Business Improvement Areas (BIA) is being piloted that aims to address the relationship between vulnerable Edmontonians and struggling business owners who share the same neighbourhood.

YEGAmbassadors, a collaborative partnership between the North Edge Business Association, the City of Edmonton, The Mustard Seed and REACH Edmonton, now features a two-person Community Safety Ambassador Team. This team aims to create more positive connections between businesses and vulnerable neighbours through relationship building, information sharing, and increasing connections to business supports or social services, depending on the needs.

Starting in the fall of 2020 through to the spring of 2021, the #YEGAmbassador partners, the Downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA), and Boyle Street Community Services came together to prototype a street-engaged Community Safety Ambassador model. The aim was to learn what was needed for businesses and the community to address the increased vulnerability everyone is experiencing due to COVID-19.

One way to open up communication is with coffee and cookies. | Supplied by REACH Edmonton

Key lessons that came out of this were that the model could not be traditional outreach work, but required a balanced approach to engage with business community members and social agencies.

Businesses need consistent, uninterrupted, coordinated help to manage issues in the neighbourhood that create fear for staff and customers. For example, loitering, excessive litter, theft, and crisis situations.

Establishing these relationships requires time and continuity.

Stronger coordination and connection to City services, community organizations, program initiatives, and enforcement may lead to more appropriate response to business needs.

The Community Safety Ambassadors, Kaleigh Greidanus and Raelene Goulet, are supporting businesses to develop capacity and engagement with their local community. They are proud of their new roles, and feel honoured to support both vulnerable Edmontonians and vulnerable businesses who often share spaces in the same neighbourhoods. 

Prior to joining YEGAmbassadors, Greidanus was working at the Mustard Seed’s drop-in centre downtown. 

“Having worked in the downtown core and built relationships with people in the community, I have been able to learn more about how complex and diverse the needs of this community are. Everyone has such unique experiences, and therefore everyone needs different levels of support. I’ve tried to translate that mentality towards supporting the businesses as well. Each business faces its own unique set of challenges and for that reason the support they need from us will vary.” 

Before joining the team, Goulet was the co-lead for a street team for The Mustard Seed on the south side of the city, working with community members experiencing homelessness in the Strathcona area. 

“The North Edge and Chinatown do have a lot of businesses I believe would self-identify as marginalized, so we’re working to support them as well as encouraging them to be socially active in the community,” says Goulet. 

While the team is still quite new, they’ve already started some innovative projects aimed at connecting business owners and community members in a positive way. 

One way Goulet and Greidanus work to support these two groups is by providing care packages for businesses to hand out to individuals in crisis.

“We started out thinking we’re here to support small businesses in helping them solve their challenges and found that their main challenge has been communication and being able to have positive interactions with people facing homelessness,” says Sami Ayyaz, a veteran YEGAmbassador and now supervisor. 

Some challenges businesses face on a daily basis include: loitering, excessive litter, people sleeping around businesses, theft, and crisis situations that cause disturbances.

The team found that care packages are a good way to de-escalate the situation. 

“People may just be agitated because they’re cold, hungry, or can’t get somewhere,” says Ayyaz. 

The packages include things like bus tickets, water, granola bars, mittens, and hats. 

“It’s just a way to get a conversation going,” he says. “They can offer them something and possibly even create a positive relationship between the business owner and the vulnerable person. We’ve already distributed about 10 care packages to businesses who were interested and the reception has been really good.”

The team is also exploring new training approaches that could be offered to businesses to help them navigate these complex situations, build relationships, and enhance people’s sense of safety. 

“A lot of these businesses are hanging on by a thread, and unexpected expenses caused by vandalism or theft could impact on their livelihood,” says Ayyaz.

The team is also engaging with businesses to connect those interested with nasal naloxone kits, in partnership with Alberta Health Services and George Spady, as well as training on how to use the overdose-reversal medication.

The new team members are eager to get to work on addressing the complex needs of these two overlapping communities who are struggling in especially difficult times. 

“We’ve connected with a lot of businesses who feel they haven’t had a voice,” says Goulet. “We’re in a unique situation where we are listening to these specific concerns, and I think that’s been the missing piece for a lot of people.”

The team is already deeply committed to creating connections between these two groups who need more support.

“The pandemic is really impacting marginalized communities,” says Greidanus. “It’s so important that these folks can share their stories and feel loved and heard. There are a lot of businesses that are already socially active and engaging with the vulnerable community, so we get to build off their great work and inspire other businesses to do the same.”

Community Safety YEGAmbassadors is a collaborative partnership between the North Edge Business Association, the City of Edmonton, The Mustard Seed, and REACH Edmonton.