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‘I need to do something to help’: Homeless outreach with BeTheChangeYYC in downtown Calgary

It was 5:15 pm on Wednesday, July 13, and with just a short few minutes left until Chaz Smith and his team are planning to take to the streets, he’s already administering life-saving medical care just outside his office doors.

It’s a reality for a city sweltering under a heat wave.

Smith, who is the CEO of BeTheChangeYYC, is scheduled at 5:30 pm to provide outreach to members of downtown’s homeless community.

Instead he, alongside other members of his team, are providing support to a homeless person in the parking lot of the SORCe. It’s the former location for the arrest processing unit for the Calgary Police Service. The individual is largely unconscious, suffering from a combination of factors including exhaustion brought on by a punishing afternoon of heat from a largely cloudless July sky.

EMS arrives, and Smith is able to return to the SORCe space that BeTheChangeYYC shares with other agencies providing support and outreach to Calgary’s homeless community.

Smith, cool and collected from what is an all-too-regular occurrence in his professional life, finishes directing tonight’s outreach volunteers.

Water. Check.

Sandwiches and snacks. Check.

Medical supplies. Check.

Whole loaves of bread, fresh vegetables, and a solitary papaya. Check.

Business cards and phamplets with information on how to access the SORCe, and more importantly get on to a path towards permanent housing. Check.

Some debate over how individual Calgary Transit officers and supervisors have decided where BeTheChangeYYC can also do outreach on the City Hall LRT station platform this evening. Also check.

The backgrounds for tonight’s volunteers are diverse. Addictions and community service social worker Melanie St. Lewis. Massage therapist Chanasit Voivoot—whom everyone just calls Rocky. Rhonda Larmour, who is a dispatcher for Checker Taxi. Gulya Taubaldieba who works at the Mustard Seed shelter but wanted to help more directly on the street. Kelly Kayses who is an Indigenous student at the University of Calgary. And Shanel Brandics, a paramedic student from Taber whom is temporarily living in Calgary to complete her course work.

What unites them alongside Smith, is the desire to directly help those in need.

“I come through this area every day, four days a week—four mornings and then four nights—and I see them. It’s just heartbreaking, and I need to help,” said Larmour.

“I need to do something to help.”

It’s now just after 5:30 pm, and the volunteers haul their carts laden with outreach supplies through the maze-like corridors of the former arrest processing unit. Making their way through the main entrance to the SORCe, which is directly located on the north City Hall LRT platform, they haul their supplies down towards the corner of Macleod Trail and prepare to distribute to an already gathering crowd.

Sandwiches and snacks are loaded into carts for distribution during BeTheChangeYYC homeless outreach in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

What service means to Smith

“I’ve been doing outreach for seven years, and I’ve been in the sector for over a decade,” Smith said during a short break.

For the past half-hour, more than a dozen homeless men and women have made their way to the volunteers to collect food. They also need water. Some of the people being served are quietly thankful. Others more jubilant. And others still belligerent.

“They’re just people right,” said Smith.

One man purposefully drops a handful of change on the ground, demanding that volunteers pick it up for him. Smith takes it in stride, stepping in so that other volunteers can continue to hand out bottles of water to those waiting.

Smith hands the man his change, and without skipping a beat asks where he’s staying for the night. It’s a question he asks everyone he encounters, noting their response onto a clipboard that’ll he’ll use to tally up responses at the end of the night.

Reflecting in the shade, Smith talks about the meaning of service, especially for those who have been disenfranchised from what most Calgarians would consider normal life.

“What does it mean to me to serve; pick it up and give it back to him?” Smith said.

“If that’s how he needs to feel empowered in that moment, it doesn’t hurt me at all to do anything to allow him to feel that way. It’s not a power struggle up here. We all have homes to go to at the end of the day, so people experiencing homelessness, they don’t have that same privilege.

“For us, we understand that and we know that we’re gonna get people in all different states, and we’re expecting it, and that’s OK.”

Gulya Taubaldieba, left, Kelly Kayses, and Chaz Smith mark down how many people they interacted with for housing during BeTheChangeYYC homeless outreach in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Getting folks off the street and into homes

What separates BeTheChangeYYC outreach this evening and what other groups have done, is the primary focus that is being placed on getting folks off the streets in into housing and detox programs.

Every conversation leads with “where are you staying tonight” because that allows the volunteers to assess that person’s needs. That could be getting onto a housing list for the first time, or ensuring that they stay on one.

Individuals on waiting lists for homeless housing in the city must check in at least once every two weeks, otherwise they are taken off. The rationale being they must have found housing independently.

Most of the people Smith is serving say they are on the lists, and are dutifully checking in on a regular basis at the SORCe. A handful take one of the pamphlets, promising to visit in the morning to get that process started.

Another man dismisses the notion entirely. “I could build a house faster than they could find me a home,” he said.

For some, it’s simply educating them on services.

“I know personally, there was two people that didn’t know, from who we have served, that they could access the housing list, or that there was a housing list,” said Smith. Over the course of the evening, the team will get eight new people onto housing program lists.

But where there is justifiable cynicism about the wait times, there is also hope. A number of people say they are getting close, and one man tells Smith that tonight is his last night on the streets. Tomorrow, he has a home, he said.

A 2008 report on the cost of homelessness in the city found that the average annual cost to Calgarians for each individual homeless person was between $72,000 and $135,000 per year. Housing First strategies in Calgary, by comparison, costs $30,500 annually, with the eventual goal of $0 as individuals transition into the private rental market. The difference is estimated to be more than $300,000 in lifetimes savings per person.

Some falling through the cracks

Perhaps not expected is the shy Ukrainian girl who approached the volunteers for help. Fleeing the brutal war in her country and seeking stability in Canada, she is one of a growing number of evacuees in the city who are falling through the social services cracks.

Nearby, one of her friends makes tentative motions to approach but doesn’t. She simply circled the busy scene in front of the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape downtown campus.

Both melt back into the crowds exiting the CTrain. Eventually, the outreach team moves on.

Later in the evening, the outreach team will encounter more people not from Calgary who are sleeping rough on the streets. On the 3 Street SE facing side of Bow Valley College, Smith takes the time to help a transgender woman learn how to get shelter, and eventually get on a housing list.

“We see a trend of people like coming from outside the city, and coming into the city to access resources, and they really don’t know how to navigate it yet. So that’s our job is to help them system navigate,” he said.

Chaz Smith, left, and Gulya Taubaldieba walk towards Olympic Plaza during a BeTheChangeYYC homeless outreach in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Stampede season in a heat-wave

What becomes readily apparent is that people are thirsty, dehydrated, and that a large number of those seeking help are suffering from varying degrees of heat exhaustion. With every bottle of water, the team asks if the person receiving it would like some electrolyte vitamin powder to go with.

Over the course of the evening, more than 170 bottles of water will be given out. Most to homeless individuals, but some to regular Calgarians who are just thirsty from an afternoon at the Calgary Stampede. Some dressed for the 10-day festival ask for the snacks and sandwiches the volunteers are handing out.

When told it’s only for the homeless some understand. Others take anyway.

In a post-outreach debrief later in the evening, outreach volunteers are critical of those who have the means but take anyway.

“There’s people with their whole getup, and they just need a drink of water because they’re boozing too much,” said Brandics.

“That does frustrate me at times, too,” said Smith.

“They’re like, ‘well, I’m just hungry right now,’ and I’m like, ‘you know, there’s people that are hungry all the time and they need this food.'”

Smith said that’s just something that comes with Stampede season in the city.

“It’s the privilege thing, and remembering that we have privileges that other people don’t have. It’s important we use our privileges to support people that are in those positions that don’t have that,” he said.

He hopes that the folks who took water and can help, will help, with kindness in the future through donations.

Chanasit Voivoot, aka Rocky, pulls a cart of water into the shade during a BeTheChangeYYC homeless outreach in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Hydration for those in need

Nearly a half-hour before, the volunteers took an extended stop at Olympic Plaza. Brandics provided emergency first-aid to a homeless woman who had passed out from heat exhaustion. She and Smith were able to stabilize her condition. But every one of the homeless folks trying to find shade, not far from where that woman received aid, was in some degree of heat distress.

The reality was that during that stop, the capacity to serve ran dry, quite literally, before everyone’s needs were met. The team had to return to the SORCe in order to resupply halfway through the evening. They took an additional two flats of water bottles out to the community.

Back at the BeTheChangeYYC headquarters, the overall inventory of water is running lower than they would like. The heatwave, combined with slowing donations, has exhausted a significant portion of their supplies.

“We always need more for sure,” said Smith, citing that everything BeTheChangeYYC does is volunteer and donation based.

“If the public doesn’t donate, we’re not able to run, and so we appreciate all donations that we do get and just encourage people to become more active and participating in the sector.”

Smith says that for the homeless folks who do get a bottle of water tonight, many will simply keep it for re-use.

“There’s not many fountains around, so obviously once you get a bottle you’ll just keep it, and then you can try and find a washroom to refill it.”

Smith says there are a few places to fill in the downtown core, but not as many as he would like to see for those in need.

A board with all of the planning for BeTheChangeYYC homeless outreach at their HQ at the SORCe in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Equitable medical care

It’s 6 p.m., and while the team prepares to cross into Olympic Plaza, a man suffering from leg pains approaches the group. Brandics, donning a pair of medical gloves, lifts the man’s pant legs to reveal large and presumably painful sores.

Later, Smith points out that he is suffering from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA. The infection is rare outside of medical facilities and congregate care, but is common and prevalent in the homeless community.

In what will become a number of medical interventions during the evening, Brandics does what she can with what medical supplies are available—of which tonight’s BeTheChangeYYC outreach is well prepared with—to treat the man’s leg. Wounds are cleaned, bandages applied.

Another person that she would treat throughout the evening was suffering from a lack of post-hospital discharge care. Old, unchanged bandages had given way to subsequent infections on one woman’s toe. That type of infection, said Smith, is especially common for homeless individuals.

“It felt like she trusted me, and that felt really nice,” said Brandics.

Every BeTheChangeYYC outreach shift tries to include someone with medical training.

“I would just say that it’s equitable,” said Smith.

“The opportunities that we have to do medical right there on the spot, and change some very disturbing bandages that probably should have been changed a while ago, it’s equitable.”

Feeling judged when seeking medical care

Avoiding stigma and being dehumanized is a large part of why homeless individuals do not seek aftercare, said Smith.

“We’re meeting people where they’re at, and providing that health care service in a respectable way, because sometimes people experiencing homelessness don’t want to go to the hospital.”

“They feel judged, and I’ve heard that so many times they don’t want to sit there.”

The goal for the outreach volunteers is to always to treat homeless individuals as they are: As people.

From the 2008 report, the costs of medical care for homeless Calgarians was more than $10 million, the bulk of which was made up of Calgary Health Region hospital stay costs. The average stay was 12.2 days, for 767 admissions.

A group of women walk past BeTheChangeYYC volunteers as they hand out water, food, and supplies to the homeless during outreach in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Harm-reduction a reality in outreach care

Smith said they know that the medical issues extend beyond post-care related issues.

“We know people are using substances,” he said.

And from that knowledge, there are two ways that BeTheChangeYYC volunteers address the issue of drug use. The first and ultimate goal is to direct individuals to detox programs where they can become permanently clean from use. That’s also a way of ending addiction issues that led many into homelessness in the first place.

It is, however, complicated, said Smith, by the lack of detox space available. Some folks have to wait weeks for one of the few spots available in the city, sleeping rough outside of facilities for the opportunity at a bed.

The second, and perhaps more controversial amongst the public, is providing users with the tools to use. Be that syringes, straights, and bubbles. The latter two parlance for crack, meth, and cannabis pipes that replace low-quality pipes that lead to further and often publicly hidden complications from drug use.

“The goal of that is to reduce the transmission of things like hepatitis, and HIV of course, and Covid, and flu—all those types of things,” says Smith.

It’s also about providing alternatives those low-quality pipes that shatter in people’s mouths, burn them, or are shared, leading to yet another vector for viral and bacterial infections and long-term health care consequences. It’s a very literal harm reduction that comes with providing something that doesn’t eliminate the dangers from drugs themselves, but that eliminates the other harms go alongside their use.

Outreach winds down with a successful night

Debrief post outreach in downtown Calgary with BeTheChangeYYC on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

It’s 8:30 p.m., and all of the volunteers are back at BeTheChangeYYC’s HQ. Larmour, Taubaldieba, and Kayses are doing a post outreach inventory to determine what was given out and how much is left for another day.

Smith is in his office counting up the numbers from the day, scribed onto his clipboard. A total of 55 men and 24 women were helped. At least those were who Smith was able to jot down as having spoken to. More than 50 per cent of those people were Indigenous.

“It just generally shows the over representation of Indigenous people in the homeless community,” he says.

More than 10 people with heat exhaustion were able to be given extra care, and six people were given first-aid medical treatment. In addition to the 170 bottles of water, dozens of meals were given out.

St. Lewis is jokingly lamenting that she wasn’t able to give away the papaya. She does however recount the joy on one person’s face after they got fresh cucumbers.

“You heard the lady afterwards,” she said.

And whether it could be considered a successful night or not, Smith said that it was.

“We served lots of people, probably prevented some hospital trips, rehydrated people, did some wound care, gave referrals to housing, and talked about mental health services and detox treatment with individuals,” Smith said.

“I would say overall, it was a very successful outreach considering with a heat wave we had no major issues.”

For more information on BeTheChangeYYC, see www.bethechangeyyc.org.