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Pop-up care festival about dignity, compassion for homeless Calgarians

Some of the city’s most prominent social service non-profits, social care organizations, government agencies, and local colleges and businesses gathered on Tuesday to provide a dignified festival of care and service to Calgary’s homeless community.

The festival was organized by BeTheChangeYYC, AAWEAR, Angels in Action, Sobercrew/A.I.M, Harvest Hill Cares, and Hearts for Humanity.

Running from 12 to 6 p.m. at Olympic Plaza, Calgarians could connect with service agencies to receive information on housing, health care, well-being, employment, and transit access, while also being able to get a haircut, manicure, a massage, and pizza.

“This event is not just an information session, it’s a festival. We got music, we got good vibes, we got food, entertainment, everything here,” said Bill Zheng, coordinator for the Calgary Pop-Up Care Village.

“People are here not only to access services, they’re here to enjoy and have a good time—that’s the most important part.”

The goal, said Zheng, was to provide dignified services to people who have often been dehumanized.

“Being dehumanized separates themselves from the services available, and creates that services—or authorities—versus us mentality,” he said.

“When we’re bringing services here, meeting them where they’re at, plus the music, the vibe, the volunteers, everything combined together, you’re bridging that gap together. It makes them want to access services more, because they have an actual friendly face they can talk to genuinely.”

Partner agencies and organizations at the festival included Alpha House, Alberta Health Services, Calgary Drop-In Centre, Calgary Transit, CUPS, IDistress Centre, ksooksipaitapii Wellness Foundation, Momentum, Nambert Manor YYC, Prospect, SafeLink Alberta, Source, and St. John Ambulance.

MC College was on hand to give out haircuts and provide manicures, CITCM was giving out free massages, and Boston Pizza was handing out pizza.

The festival came together in five months, something Zheng said was an “insane amount of work” for the small team. The goal is to hold more pop-up festivals in the future, possibly smaller in scale in order to hold them more frequently.

Services that elevate

Giving homeless Calgarians access to the same services was something that Zheng said elevates their status.

“Having the opportunity here, being so accessible to people who want it, is so critical because they’re able to enjoy experiences that normally other people have,” he said.

“It enables and empowers them to move forward and push through their challenges right now.”

Chaz Smith, CEO of BeTheChangeYYC, asked rhetorically about what it means to get a slice of pizza from Boston Pizza.

“When you’re experiencing homelessness, for example, when was the last time someone gave you a dignified hot meal that is from a place that you would go out to eat at today?” Smith said.

“When you’re experiencing homelessness, you’re in that fight or flight mode where you’re looking for food, you’re looking for water, you’re looking for shelter, and then you’re being offered that, plus getting a haircut. When is the last time you thought about getting a haircut when you’re experiencing homelessness?”

He called it a self-care piece that reminds homeless Calgarians that they are loved, that they are cared for, and that they’re human beings with their own dignity.

“Folks that we do serve that are experiencing homelessness. They do tell us that they they noticed that the majority of people try not to look at them, or they walk away from them because they they don’t know what to do,” Smith said.

“This type of event reminds them that they are seen and that they do matter.”

Smith pointed to his own experience of being homeless, to becoming a CEO of a successful Calgary non-profit.

“If I didn’t get that love and that care to remind me of my own self worth, I wouldn’t be here today.”

A haircut is more than a haircut

For many Calgarians, not having a fresh haircut makes little difference in their life.

For homeless Calgarian Jonathan Acoby, not having a haircut can the difference between getting work to be lifted out of homelessness, and not.

“I wanted to get a good haircut for while, part of ‘look good, feel good,'” he said.

“I think it would help me get a better job, too. I’ve been trying to get a job at temp agencies but not really getting sent out.”

He said that MC College being present at the pop-up festival to provide something as simple as a haircut was helping to bring the community together, and to change the perspective on homeless Calgarians looking for work.

“The temp agencies people helping these other people getting jobs, they can see that they’re trying to get back into society and feel good about themselves,” Acoby said.

He said that he hopes with a fresh look he can start to make some changes to his employment.

“I’ve done roofing my whole life, but I love animals. I would like to be like a vet or work at a zoo, but roofing is all I’ve always done since I was 14. It’s all I can ever get,” he said.

“So definitely trying to make that change.”

Festival a part of larger changes needed at the systemic level

Smith said that often the public perception of what services exist, and what services are actually being provided can differ.

“I think folks pay taxes, and they just assume that there are services for anyone that needs them, and they are like, ‘well, what I hear is people can just go get help if they want help,'” he said.

“The sad reality is those services simply just often don’t exist. We are paying far more in taxes to maintain folks in homelessness than we are to actually provide housing which is half the cost of what each taxpayer is currently paying.”

He said that the cycle of homelessness leads to physical and mental health challenges. That, in turn, leads to use of illicit drugs and alcohol as a way of self-medicating away the pain of that hurt, depression, anxiety, and even just the pain of being hungry and thirsty.

He said that the many of the agencies and services have faced financial cutbacks and program rollbacks.

“Many agencies have lost lots of funding. No more Covid funding. They’ve scaled back services, and we’re trying to do more with less all the time,” he said.

Smith pointed to the rise in concern over social disorder in Calgary. He said the lack of social services available actually contributes to that issue.

“If things like supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites don’t exist, then the community just continues to be that that consumption site,” Smith said.

“So, it’s a matter of centralizing it so that it’s safer for folks, but also during that period of time they’re accessing an intake place that possibly is going to get them into treatment and detox, which is the goal.”

He pointed to how without constant points of contact with homeless Calgarians, it can be hard to connect them with the treatment services. Smith said that having that intake spot actually ends up protecting community from social disorder.

For more details on the Calgary Pop-Up Care Village, see c-pucv.ca.