For many Calgarians, the Drop-In Centre continues to conjure images of being primarily an emergency shelter for homeless Calgarians in the Downtown Core.
And while the low barrier to entry shelter continues to be a major component of what the Drop-In Centre provides, the philosophical shift in how the DI provides services, and what sorts of services they provide, has not always been readily apparent.
“Traditionally, emergency shelters have been funded and structured to provide basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, and that’s it. And either you self-resolve, or you end up staying in the shelter and become chronically homeless,” said Sandra Clarkson, Executive Director for the Calgary Drop-In Centre.
“When we really examined what we were doing, and the fact that some individuals had been living in this building since the day it opened, I thought we can do better than this.
“Shelter is not home.”
Clarkson said that shift, which began in late 2017, has culminated in the DI putting hundreds of Calgarians each year into homes permanently. Thanks to the work and support that DI staff provide to clients, recidivism into homelessness has averaged out at less than 4 per cent annually.
Part of that involves doing things to give individuals a leg up through financial support, like providing damage deposits and covering the first and last month’s rent. Clarkson said that for some folks it means getting them into housing and the DI never hears from them again.
Others do require more assistance. For that, Clarkson said, staff work on creating housing plans and other solutions for people who have become institutionalized in the shelter system.
In another example she provided, she said that they worked with a man who had become incredibly accustomed to living in the emergency shelter and was having anxiety once he got his own apartment.
Staff worked out a plan where he would live one day on at the apartment, and one day on at the shelter as a way to transition. Additionally, they provided him a recording of overnight sounds from the emergency shelter that he could play while sleeping to reduce that anxiety.
“knowing that for some, that transition is going to take longer, and that’s okay. I think that is a real testament to the compassion and dedication of of the staff here.”
“Literally, they will do whatever it takes to help someone be successful in their housing.”
Calgarians helped out of homelessness on the rise
As a result of the housing strategy, the DI put over 500 homeless Calgarians into homes in 2022. That’s up from 292 that were housed in 2019-2020.
“We see the power of a housing-focused model,” Clarkson said.
“That housing-focus model, and that language is now being utilized in our provincial funding contracts, the evidence really speaks for itself in terms of how effective it can be when everyone’s rowing in the same direction.”
She said that there was nevertheless a need to recognize that the emergency shelter continues to be necessary. Decades of bad policy decisions and even unfortunate circumstances in an individual’s life contribute to that continued need.
“It should be for emergency only; it should be short-term stay, and ideally, one time only,” Clarkson said.
Long-term, the ideal use of the DI, said Clarkson, would be as a downtown resource hub for Calgarians experiencing homelessness first, and an emergency shelter second. The DI currently owns and operates three mixed-market housing buildings, which has formed a widely-examined model for sustainable affordable housing.
“I would love it if we were supporting more people in housing than we’re supporting in an emergency shelter, and kind of flip that on its head,” Clarkson said.
Not a band-aid but a long-term solution
Clarkson said that there are additional misconceptions that the DI is trying to address. Among them is that the emergency shelter is inherently unsafe and that no services will be provided.
She also said they weren’t just trying to provide a band-aid solution in trying to reduce the visibility of homelessness on the streets.
“We’re always trying to find ways that we can continue to take services to where the people are at, and I think going back to the successes, that housing number is phenomenal,” she said.
One of the things that the DI has done right, and will continue to do right, said Clarkson, is to be adaptable.
“There is no such thing as status quo here, and much to the chagrin of some, constant change is challenging,” she said.
“One of the things that we’re really good at at the DI is being nimble and adaptable and pivoting on the fly.”
Announced last week, the provincial government said that they would be providing the DI $4 million in operational and capital funding to create pre-treatment detox and recovery spaces at the centre. Additionally, that funding would be going towards supporting the localized delivery of overdose medical responses around the centre.
“The primary goal for this service is to keep our communities safe while continuing to treat addiction as healthcare issues at both the DI and the surrounding community,” said Nicholas Milliken, Minister of Mental Health and Addiction, during that event.
Clarkson said the funding was welcome.
“The toxic drug supply is insane, and we want to continue to be able to not only keep people alive but help get them on a pathway out of addiction and into recovery and housing,” she said.
100 per cent voluntary
Following that announcement, there were social media posts that expressed concern the DI would be forced into the recovery-oriented care system. Something that Clarkson said was absolutely incorrect.
“All of our programs are 100 per cent voluntary, and we don’t have the authority or the mandate to force anyone to do anything,” she said.
“As a low-barrier shelter, we don’t have requirements for sobriety, or even for the most part behaviour other than issues of safety.”
She said that while she has heard concerns regarding enforced treatment, that isn’t something that she or the DI would support.
“We believe that self-determination is a key to someone’s success, that we can’t force anyone to do anything, and nor would we want to. We believe in the dignity and indeed the individuality of everyone that comes through our doors,” Clarkson said.
And while the visible public disorder, she said, has destigmatized homeless individuals across North America, she said that they have continued to try and create a space that is welcoming to everyone that comes through their doors.
Part of that is restarting the successful Share the Streets program, which worked to destigmatize homelessness. It was put on hold because of the pandemic. Another would be to take advantage of funding opportunities to offer more programs.
A third would be to continue creating a welcoming for those in need.
“We’re always continually looking at what can we do to help instill hope, create pathways out,” Clarkson said.
“We want to be working not at a level of human tragedy, which is how people see it, but how we see it as working at a level of human possibility.”