Walk through Saskatoon’s Pleasant Hill neighbourhood any day of the week, and you’re bound to see plenty of police.
Starting this month, it’s likely people will see another steady presence in the community — a band of people wearing reflective vests, scouring the ground for used needles.
The Okihtcitawak Patrol Group (OPG) has been watching over the area for a couple of years now, but never full time and never in an official capacity.
Earlier this month, it started working for AIDS Saskatoon, which channelled $50,000 from the Elton John AIDS Foundation to the group.
OPG co-founder Lanny Mcdonald said they’re better-equipped to protect the community now that he has a full-time, paid position. He helps co-ordinate volunteer patrols of the area every weekday, and is hoping more people join the team to expand its capacity.
“Right now, there are a lot of stereotypes and statistics and … we want to make Pleasant Hill feel like it’s a safe place,” Mcdonald said Monday in an interview with Global News.
The neighbourhood is one of the poorest in Saskatoon, and with it comes violent crime and substance abuse.
Pleasant Hill and the surrounding neighbourhoods that make up the city’s central police division house 13 per cent of the city’s population, but report 39 per cent of the city’s crime, according to police.
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The Okihtcitawak Patrol Group tries to counteract that by picking up needles around AIDS Saskatoon’s drop-in centre, which is set to house the province’s first supervised consumption site.
Members found many used needles and spoons beside dumpsters in the alley north of 20th Street during a patrol on Monday.
They also spot criminal activity and report it to police.
OPG co-founder Colin Naytowhow grew up in Pleasant Hill.
“There were a lot of times where I would see stuff that was happening that I didn’t agree with. And I always wanted to just step up and be a change in my community,” he said.
“I always wanted to make a change from a cultural standpoint and bring that culture back where there’s hardly any culture anymore.”
Patrollers smudge community members who request it, and drum and sing at community gatherings, including a funeral service on Monday afternoon.
The group hopes to continue that work, ultimately made easier with steady funding. They’re applying for non-profit status, with the hope of expanding their opportunities for getting consistent funding in the future.