News & Events

Housing First; What Comes Second?

Shaundra Bruvall | June 16, 2021

In the homeless-serving sector, we operate on a principle of Housing First. Housing First means providing affordable, supportive housing to individuals/families experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible without expecting them to meet certain requirements (such as ‘sobriety’) before being allowed a home. In our experience, housing gives people the opportunity to work on other aspects of their lives without being constantly displaced. But housing is not the only solution or supports that people need. We sat down with some of Alpha House’s Community Housing Caseworkers to hear their thoughts on what comes next after ‘Housing First.’

 

We know about some of the barriers individuals face when trying to transition from homelessness to housing – lack of income, issues with obtaining ID/bank accounts, unmet medical needs etc. What are some of the barriers you see when it comes to someone newly housed remaining housed?

Most newly housed folks need to learn/relearn basic household and hygiene skills. Emergency Shelters do not always have the capacity to allow clients to learn how to perform these tasks so it can be a struggle when someone is newly housed.

Many folks also struggle with feeling as though they don’t fit into their new community, they may feel they are being targeted due to their appearance or behaviors and rarely feel comfortable asking for support from neighborhood support systems. It often takes months or years for a client to build a sense of community and belonging. This can lead to struggling with boundaries around things like guest management with clients inviting their (still unhoused) friends to stay, as that group of people is where they feel most comfortable.

 

What do Alpha House’s caseworkers do to reduce these barriers for clients?

From the perspective of learning/relearning basic household and hygiene skills, caseworkers are able to assist with basic chores, provide insight and information, and work off their rapport with clients to support skill building and overall confidence.

For community integration, caseworkers are able to do tours of the community, provide lists of community supports and events, and provide encouragement and supports to help clients reintegrate within their community.

The importance of having someone you trust cannot be overstated here. Rapport with clients is critical to supporting their needs and helping them gain confidence and feel more comfortable.

 

How big of a part does a neighbourhood/community play in helping individuals stay housed? Are there things we can do better as a community to prevent re-entry into homelessness?

The neighbourhood and community play a big part in a client’s successful housing. When clients feel like they are part of a community, we often see greater success in housing stability. We all play a part in our communities to help people feel welcome and that is no different when it comes to those we house. Simple things like smiling and saying hello or introducing yourself make a huge difference. More involved engagement like having a coffee with the individual and taking the time to get to know them is very beneficial to the success of housing programs. Those we serve have often been experiencing homelessness for a long period of time and feel alienated from society, so reintegration and kindness are key.

If our clients feel welcomed and understood by their neighbors, they are more likely to integrate quickly and to show a sense of pride in their housing, which promotes hope and is crucial to long-term housing stability and overall wellbeing.

As a community, we can help prevent re-entry into homelessness by understanding that everyone deserves a chance and has a unique story. Greet your neighbours regardless of their past or appearance.

Society as a whole could be more open to seeing unhoused individuals as people that are worthy of interaction and compassion.

Anecdote: I live in the deep SW and one day stopped to fill up with gas, an Alpha House client was in the parking lot asking for money to get on the bus. When he asked me, I showed him my employee ID badge and he immediately held out his hand to show me a possible broken hand with cuts all over it. He only needed to get on the bus to go get medical attention and had no money to do so. Everyone else that he approached walked away from him as fast as possible when he really just needed help and support.

 

Can you share some thoughts on the importance of landlord relationships when it comes to housing stability for clients? How do you go about building those relationships and reducing stigma that can come with housing previously homeless individuals?

Landlord relations are incredibly important as not all individuals have an easy or seamless transition to independent housing.  With a patient and understanding landlord/lady, it is easier for individuals to be successful in their housing. One critical piece is establishing a landlord-tenant relationship where the landlord addresses concerns they are having with a client themselves in a direct and gentle approach. If a landlord/lady requests Alpha House discuss all concerns with a client it does not build a client’s capacity to have these discussions and overall, it reduces their accountability. All of our clients are their own lease holders and need to attend the lease signing with the landlord; we also encourage clients to call their landlord for small fixes and concerns just like a non-program tenant would. This builds capacity and self-advocacy as well as relationships. Forming a relationship helps the property owner see a client as a person who deserves housing, and not just someone who used to be homeless or has an addiction.

 

What about neighbour relations? How do you encourage clients to integrate into their community?

In inner city areas it is easier to integrate and not feel so targeted as opposed to in suburban communities.  Alpha House never wants to make a client feel bad about their appearance or experience so when working with clients we tend to focus more on being a good neighbor and what that means. We talk about not having a lot of guests over at any one time, using appropriate garbage cans, keeping the apartment a good level of cleanliness etc. Overall, integration into community is not something that can be easily achieved without society as a whole becoming more open minded towards our clients.

 

Where are there gaps (both in the homeless-serving sector and overall as a society) when it comes to housing stability? What things are we missing as a collective group to prevent someone losing their housing or to be more inclusive and well rounded in general?

To help the client succeed and maintain housing stability, communication is key. When housing someone from homelessness into housing, the transition period is very hard for the client. We often see clients who sleep on their balconies, or have their bed in the living room. As a collective, we all need to be patient and communicate the struggles that the client is facing at the time and work together to ensure adequate supports are provided.

Additionally, the Homeless Serving sector could do a better job at educating society about the variety of reasons individuals become homeless. So many non-aware people assume that it is just based on drugs and alcohol, rather than seeing the trauma that so often leads to substance use as a coping mechanism.

 

We typically see studies that show prevention is more cost effective than reactionary programs – this is true in terms of crime prevention, injury prevention etc. Besides the humanitarian reasons to provide affordable housing to all and prevent homelessness, what do you see as the economic benefits of housing stability? (i.e. client interacts with police less often, fewer medical issues, less substance use etc.)

We often see a reduction in overall emergency services use, such as CPS and EMS interactions, as clients are housed and able to attend general medical appointments on a regular basis and address underlying health concerns.

Often times we see a reduction is substance use as a result of decompression. When clients are homeless their bodies go into a fight or flight mode. When they are housed we often see them decompress and they are able to relax, not having to constantly be looking over their shoulders.

We also often see mental health concerns stabilize as individuals are able to take care of themselves, stick to a medication regime, get better sleep and eat better, which all contributes to a positive state of mental health

 

Alpha House operates from a Housing First perspective meaning individuals are better able to work on other aspects of their lives if they have shelter security and a place to call home. In the context of “housing first, what’s second?” – what would you say comes second after housing?

Some of the most common ‘seconds’ we see are mental health, overcoming trauma, reconnecting with family or dealing with physical health concerns.

In addition to the above pieces, community reintegration and purpose, along with a sense of dignity and self-worth for the client are important. We help clients set goals and support their plans for the future. Having something to work towards and having hope for the future is critical.

Overall, we know that support needs to come second; it is about supporting clients in whatever way they need so they can find stability.

 

What types of philosophies do you follow as caseworkers to support your clients? Do you have any rules of thumb or best practices?

  1. Be honest to yourself and to the client
  2. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We work with people and not just numbers. Client choice is also very important. Every client has their own unique story, with underlying trauma as a big factor in why they were homeless. We support clients, no matter the choices that they make. As long as they are safe, and given the tools to remain safe in their homes.
  3. Harm reduction principals and to meet a client where they are at. We cannot move faster than them and for individuals who have been homeless or institutionalized most of their lives, it takes longer to feel comfortable being housed than someone who has been only episodically homeless.
  4. Celebrate the small successes with your clients and encourage self-sufficiency

 


A Day with Our Encampment Team

Shaundra Bruvall | June 9, 2021

A Day with Alpha House’s Encampment Team

Two members of the Encampment Team, Cody and Brianna, stand beside their van in Stanley Park.

Today, Alpha House’s Encampment Team begin their day in Stanley Park. They have received a call from Calgary Community Standards’ Peace Officers (A.K.A Bylaw) about someone “camping” in the trees. The Encampment Team are a mobile response unit supporting “rough sleepers” with service navigation for shelter, housing, medical, or mental health programs in the city. Rough sleepers are individuals who sleep or camp in places not meant for human habitation and they do not typically use Emergency Shelters.

The program works alongside authorities like Bylaw; a crucial partnership that plays a major role in the team’s ability to support clients. While rough sleeping and camping are not encouraged by the City of Calgary, the Encampment Team’s relationship with Bylaw helps reduce displacement for those camping. When managing a community tip-off about a camp, Bylaw will share location information with the team to give them an opportunity to work with the individual(s). Constant relocation is both harmful to the wellbeing of the rough sleeper and counterproductive to supporting someone into housing or other social services. Finding a new campsite can be challenging and can cause delays for service accessibility.

Cody and Brianna form one of two Alpha House Encampment Teams. This isn’t their first time trying to make contact with the person camping in Stanley Park. They head into the trees and find a tent on the side of the hill, hidden from view of the road.

“Hello this is Alpha House, is anyone home?” Cody calls out. He waits a minute for a response. There is silence. He asks, ‘Do you need a lunch?’ Still no response. They wait another minute before concluding the individual is not around and move on to their next call. Sometimes the team will need to visit a site multiple times before making contact with someone. It’s hard to predict the hours someone will be around given the circumstances.

A client calls while the team moves on to their next stop of the day.

The supportive/affordable housing system in Calgary can be finicky to navigate. Part of the process includes frequent check-ins. This particular client has called to check in and to request some bus tickets to get to an appointment. The in-person interaction is brief but compassionate and respectful. Despite a non-descript parking lot as its location, this meeting is an important engagement in the team’s relationship with the client. Trust takes time to build.  This interaction, as with all client interactions, is recorded by the team. The client’s consistent engagement means one less barrier for housing.

A check in can be as simple as a client calling to say hello and to note their continued interest/unchanged circumstance but it can also include updates on client needs or reports of a camp relocation. The more engagement, the less the likelihood of a delay when a housing unit becomes vacant. Units rarely sit empty for long as the demand for affordable and supportive housing in Calgary greatly outstrips the supply.

Alpha House is one of many organizations who provide supportive housing in Calgary. The Coordinated Access Assessment program provides oversite and management for Calgary’s affordable housing system and is run by the Calgary Homeless Foundation – working in collaboration with a number of housing providers to support clients toward housing that best fits their needs. Best-fit considerations can include the need for medical or old-age care, mental and physical health challenges, and even a client’s connection to a certain community.

The team’s next stop is Bowness. Their goal is to check in on J, who is camping at the bottom of a very steep, forested hill. His camp is well hidden and difficult to access. From the top of the hill Cody calls out and J answers back to say he’ll come up. J has a cell phone provided by Alpha House, but it has run out of minutes and J hasn’t been able to check in recently. He says he has some bottles he’s going to take to a depot today to buy some minutes for his phone. He has a teenage son that is just learning to drive and J wants to use his phone to get updates on how his son is doing. J also has a caseworker he’s been unable to reach because of this.

Cody calls J’s case worker for him. J has been approved for housing and is waiting for the unit to become available. After speaking with the caseworker, Cody shares the good news that J’s new apartment will be ready the following Monday. J only needs to wait for a few more nights before he’ll be able to move in. Before leaving, Brianna gives J a lunch and asks if J’s friend is still camping down the hill. J says he is and accepts a second lunch to pass along. He thanks the team and expresses how excited he is to move into his home.

Still in Bowness, the team meet with G. You would only be able to find G’s camp if you already knew it was there. Hidden in thick foliage, G has further camouflaged it with green tarps that act as wind breaks and walls. He has also constructed a work bench for himself and he tells the team he has just put up a second tent to use as a closet for his clothes. His main shelter is a sturdy tent. He has put down foam mats as floor tiles. The camp is one of the more elaborate setups the team have seen.

G has been trying to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the team have come to check in and inquire about his progress. He places a few hurried phone calls trying to track down invoices as proof of income. G works as a general contractor but lack of income due to COVID-19 meant a loss of housing in May of 2020. He is on a waitlist but hopes that CERB will give him the money he needs for a damage deposit and first months rent.

The team stops for lunch around midday. This afternoon they have booked in a client to do a Needs and Services Questionnaire (NSQ). NSQs are one of the requirements to access the affordable housing system in the city. The Encampment Team are one of only a handful of groups that can do NSQs. After their meeting, they’ll be back in the van to speak with more clients.

Every day is busy for the Encampment Team. A rough estimate of clients connected with the team at any given time is about 250 and the need for the Encampment Team continues to grow.

Cody and Brianna both say the best part of the job is watching clients progress to housing and how rewarding it is to have a role in supporting that transition, particularly when they get to be with a client on move-in day and experience that individual’s excitement and relief.

Individuals sleeping rough face significant barriers when it comes to housing. Even before the process of NSQs and wait lists, they face constant displacement, cold nights in a city well-known for its frigid winters, food insecurity, the threat of tickets for violating certain bylaw (which they may weigh against the dangers of not being able to use a fire to keep warm at night or eating cold food perennially). The list goes on.

The Encampment Program is able to respond in real-time to client needs to ultimately remove some of these barriers and transition individuals into stable housing. Alpha House is excited about new developments with its Encampment Team and our ongoing partnership with CCS and we encourage you to keep your eye on our social media and blog for updates!


Strength and Resilience in Crescent Heights

Shaundra Bruvall | April 29, 2021

‘I’m a strong lady; that sticks in my head,’ says Gail as she shares her story and what life is like at Providence House in Crescent Heights. She’s not quite 60, although you wouldn’t know it. She goes walking with friends as often as she can and takes pride in keeping her apartment clean and tidy. She’s dressed nicely for our conversation, with sparkly purple nail polish, a black top, and matching jewelry. She speaks about her life growing up, her kids, her husband, her experiences being homeless and her time now at Providence House, where Alpha House provides 24/7 wrap-around supports. Resilient and wise, she’s shy at first but quickly opens up and is happy to share her story and her years of wisdom.

The youngest of seven girls, she has six brothers as well and speaks fondly of her parents. Growing up in Cardston, Alberta she thanks her parents for being strict as she was growing up. She first met her future husband Francis in Siksika. She describes him as the classic tall, dark, and handsome. Her parents were smitten as well and urged Gail to marry him. They spent 32 years together living on the Siksika Reserve east of Calgary. ‘My husband taught me a lot and I am thankful my dad accepted him.’ ‘I lived a happy life’. Francis worked in agriculture, and Gail worked as a cleaner for a while but dedicated most of her time to raising their children.

‘I did a lot of cooking. I’d make bannock and have a family recipe.’ She says she even made bannock tacos two weeks ago. An avid gardener as well, her favourite plant to grow was always rhubarb because of the jam she’d make afterwards.

A mother of three, her son turned 31 in March but she still fondly calls him her baby boy. Her daughter is older and she speaks about how proud she is for how well her daughter is doing. Her oldest son Matthew, sadly has passed away.

When her husband died, he left everything including the house to her. Two weeks after he passed her in-laws showed up and ‘things got out of hand. I ended up in hospital…. after I was released I didn’t know where to go or what to do’. Gail ended up on the streets.

Living on the streets, she met another man. They were together 4 years and the way he treated her was the opposite of what things were like with her husband. ‘I was on the street for those 4 years. I can tolerate so much; I got tired. I started getting sick. I ended up in hospital’. It was in hospital that she was connected with the YWCA; the original service providers of Providence House, an affordable housing building owned by charitable real estate developer, HomeSpace. Alpha House took over service provision for the building in October 2020.

‘I don’t have to go wandering off living here’ she says, ‘I don’t take my apartment for granted.’ She speaks warmly of the staff, ‘Alpha treat me well, I call them family, and I get along with the women here. We talk to each other, this is why I like this place.’

With COVID-19 the common areas for the building are closed off, but Gail has still been able to see her children outside. Her daughter was able to come by and drop off Christmas dinner. ‘COVID is hard for everybody,’ she says. She often visits with family and friends in the community, going for walks and staying as active as possible.

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Calgary Alpha House Society was established in 1981 as a committed response to a marginalized population of men and women who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs and living vulnerable on the streets of Calgary.


Across the Prairies – From Assiniboine to Calgary

Shaundra Bruvall | April 14, 2021

Leonard has been a resident of The Clayton on Bowness Road for almost a year now. Originally from a Hutterite colony in Southern Saskatchewan, he lived in a variety of towns and cities across the prairies before a series of difficult circumstances led him to homelessness in Calgary, AB. He lived on the streets of Calgary for 9 years. Winters were spent in shelters and in the summer he would camp with his friends in Marlborough Park. Last year, a bout of pneumonia left him hospitalised. However, in a positive turn of events, the hospital helped him get in touch with Alpha House who worked with Leonard to find a home that suited him best. ‘When I saw the room (at the Clayton) I asked if I could move in right away, and they said okay. So I moved in that day’.

Hailing from a Hutterite colony near Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Leonard left at 18 to find work outside the colony. He has thought about going back over the years but he describes colony life as being dictated by rules and he had a dream of seeing the world. When he first left the colony, CBC news did a televised interview with him. He spoke then of his ambitions to find work and of struggles with loneliness and learning what felt, at times like a different culture. When he did find work in construction his boss speaks highly of Leonard, saying he’s keen and happy to work. This was in Swift Current. However after asking his neighbour to turn down a stereo early in the morning, he was confronted in his apartment by that same neighbour armed with a bat and crowbar. He decided to leave town after this and was forced to quit his job.

He relocated to Saskatoon where he got a job working at a carpet store. His older brother who had also left the colony was living there. He was a successful writer and publisher, releasing books on Hutterite food and culture including The Hutterite Treasury of Recipes. His brother would often test out the recipes and ask Leonard to try them. He recounts one time when they were eating sauerkraut for six months because his brother had made so much!

Eventually, Saskatoon didn’t work out either. He describes ending up in a bad way, mostly due to a dealer ‘who was available all the time. You’d call him up anytime and he’d be there in 30 minutes. He’d float you $200 worth of drugs. So I paid him off and left town to start over’.

He travelled then to Winnipeg where he built on his experience working at a carpet store to become the manager of a carpet warehouse. In Winnipeg he had a daughter, who is 13 now. ‘She’s home schooled right now because of COVID.’ They speak over Facebook when they can.

After getting back in touch with his first girlfriend, he relocated from Winnipeg to Calgary. He found a basement suit in Calgary but then ended up without a home after his relationship didn’t work out. Him and some friends would camp out in and around Marlborough Park. ‘We’d lean boards against a wall and stick a tarp over’. In the winters when it got cold he’d go to various shelters. But he expressed some hesitancy about using them. ‘I’m not a big guy. The walk to the shelter can be scary’. He mentions staying at the shelter Alpha House runs downtown and that he appreciated their harm reduction approach.

A year after he ended up on the streets, his brother passed away. Leonard speaks fondly of his brother but says ‘his death hit me really hard. My dad passed away around then too.’ It was 2011 that he ended up on the streets, but his main point from the year is that the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. His favourite hockey player is Patrice Bergeron; their captain. He watches Boston play whenever he gets the chance.

When he talks about growing up on the colony, he mentions the stigma he felt when he’d travel into town. He speaks about running into gangs of teenage boys when he’d visit the mall in Moosejaw. He was afraid to tell people he was a Hutterite for a long time after that. But over the last 15 years he says ‘I’m not afraid to tell people anymore. I’m just a human.’ He has 8 brothers and 4 sisters, most of whom live on colonies. He’s been back to visit but because of religious custom he can never move back permanently.

He likes his room at the Clayton, and even has a pet fish named Leonard Jr. He’s been able to access a pharmacy for smoking cessation aids, which he gets every month. He’s got a TV set as well where he can watch his favourite show Big Brother. ‘I applied for this season but didn’t get accepted’ he relates. Leonard also loves watching Survivor and Britain’s Got Talent. His favourite song is You are the Reason by Britain’s Got Talent Star Calum Scott.

The Clayton is run by Calgary Alpha House Society and was built by HomeSpace in 2019; a 30-unit permanent-supportive housing program with 24/7 wrap-around supports. The building is one of a handful of affordable housing options in Calgary designed for people who have experienced chronic homelessness.


How an Unhoused Veteran Found His Home

Shaundra Bruvall | April 7, 2021

Frank is a resident of Madison Place. An apartment building managed by Alpha House Society for previously unhoused Veterans of the Armed Forces, Air Force, Police and Fire Departments. Clients at Madison Place work with on-site staff to manage past or current addictions, improve their health, and engage with the community. Frank is one of the longest residents of Madison Place, which has been operating in Calgary’s Beltline since 2012. His cat, Buddha, lives with him and his wife, Amanda, lives only a few blocks away. Buddha spends most of our interview sleeping; at 21 years old he is well looked after and spends most of his time dozing in the sun next to Frank.

Originally from Eastport, Newfoundland, Frank was born the middle child in a family of 12.  His mother ‘never stopped,’ he says, and passed away only a few years ago at the age of 92. His father worked cutting railroad ties in Nerranova, ‘Back in Newfoundland, we were poor people,’ he says. ‘So I joined to help my family out’.

When Frank enlisted, it was ‘August 1966, I still remember it was August’. He was stationed first out of Murphy Barracks in Ontario and was a paratrooper – ‘a jumper,’ he says. And then a sniper. Smiling, he quips that when he first joined his Newfie accent was too thick for his sergeant to understand. ‘I used to get away with murder’ because of it, he says. ‘I loved being in the Army’.

Frank travelled to Greece, Cyprus, Germany and many other countries before eventually being stationed in Currie Barracks in Calgary. When he left the Army in 1983, he decided to settle in Calgary, because he liked the look of the place and made it home.

He left the army because of drinking, he says ‘Drinks were free on the barracks and you get bored. They sent me for treatment for it once. Any part of the Forces there is a lot of drinking.’ After leaving the army, Frank started working as a painter, which he did until he was 64, only retiring because of health concerns with his leg.

Frank eventually ended up living on the street with his wife Amanda. He was living under the bridge near the Elbow River Casino, but he doesn’t speak ill of those experiences. ‘I don’t like being confined’ he says ‘I like being outside, all times of year. It’s cold by the river but I enjoyed it. I’d go into the casino to shave, it’s open 24 hours a day. Cops would visit, bring coffee and sandwiches. When they found out I was a veteran though they got mad.’ Over Christmas, he and Amanda had been gifted a hotel room for a week when the two cops he had become familiar with helped get a place to live with Alpha House.

He didn’t want to move without his wife though, so Alpha House helped get her a place at a housing program with the YWCA a few blocks away. Because of house rules around the COVID-19 pandemic, Amanda can’t visit Frank. But he’s able to go over to her place two days a week and they meet up outside. He has two daughters and a son back in Newfoundland. He speaks to them on the phone often and last saw them two years ago at his brother’s funeral. The Veterans Association and Alpha House helped him with his flights, and looked after Buddha while he was away.

‘The staff here are excellent’ Frank says. Because of health concerns with his leg he’s in a mobility scooter but staff here have worked with the Veteran’s Association to make sure Frank is well looked after and his scooter is in good working order. Before Christmas, he spent 28 days in hospital but Frank is tough and describes his health issues as more of an inconvenience than a concern.

Frank is active in the community. Outside the building next to the Canadian flag there’s a dog bowl that is kept filled so locals walking their dogs can take a break. In the summer time, Alpha House Staff at Madison Place host frequent BBQs with clients and the community. Frank says he spends a lot of time outside talking to people experiencing homelessness and doing what he can to help whether it be listening to their stories or giving them a meal. He frequents the Kirby Centre and the Legion, which in non-COVID-19 times provides low cost and free programing to seniors. Frank loves living in the Beltline in the summertime because of all the events happening from the public pianos to concerts in Olympic Plaza.

He’s due to get his vaccine before too long and is looking forward to when life starts getting back to normal. He misses being able to have his wife over and to visit with his friends still living on the streets. He’s getting sick of TV but enjoys a few shows like Schitt’s Creek. He describes the community in the building as being very supportive and all great guys. ‘Life is what you make it. I enjoy every day I’m alive,’ says Frank.

 

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For more information please contact:

Shaundra Bruvall

Communications and Fundraising Coordinator

ShaundraB@alphahousecalgary.com

403-237-8341

 

Or

 

Allison Leonhardt

Community Engagement Coordinator

Allisonl@alphahousecalgary.com

587-832-2839

 

 

Calgary Alpha House Society was established in 1981 as a committed response to a marginalized population of men and women who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs and living vulnerable on the streets of Calgary.


Mobilizing Technology to Resolve Complex Social Issues

Shaundra Bruvall | March 24, 2021

HelpSeeker is a registered B-Corp Social Enterprise with a mission to scale systems change to resolve complex social issues. One of their most celebrated new creations The HelpSeeker app is a free network of location-based services, resources, and support you need to help your clients and the community. We had the opportunity to sit down with some of HelpSeeker’s team members to get the scoop on how things are going and what they hope their new initiatives will accomplish.

 

Who is Helpseeker for?

The HelpSeeker navigation tool can be used by anyone who might need to find help, whether for themselves, or on behalf of someone else.  Because HelpSeeker is used by thousands of people seeking help, it is also a great marketing tool for service providers, as it helps to get their information out to more people.

HelpSeeker also offers other digital tools that provide valuable insights for people in decision making roles, who want to understand the needs of their residents better, so that they can make more informed decisions that will lead to better outcomes.

 

Are you marketing the app to the general public?

Yes!  We have two apps: the HelpSeeker app and the Wellbeing Screener, which are free for anyone to use, anywhere across Canada.

HelpSeeker is a navigation tool, where people can search anonymously for supports in their community that can help them address their needs, including help services, helplines, benefits, and social programs available in a community.

HelpSeeker is great for frontline workers and people who have a good sense of what they need help with.  But sometimes it isn’t always clear to someone that the problem is: they may know they aren’t feeling their best, but can’t quite pinpoint what they need help with.  In instances like that, the Wellbeing Screener is a quick way to assess any urgent needs, and start the process of understanding what resources are available nearby, and connect to them directly, or share with a friend or family.

The HelpSeeker App allows you to privately browse thousands of community, provincial and federal health and social services, programs, resources, helplines and benefits for mental health, counselling, parenting, education and training, addictions, domestic violence, affordable housing, shelters, food support services, recreation, and more.

 

There are a lot of social service organizations in Alberta. How has the app changed navigation of those services for people who need them?

The most common cited concern we hear is that people just don’t know where to go for help. Which is too bad, because there are thousands of support services available across Alberta ready and willing to help.

HelpSeeker was created by people with lived experience in social issues, who also worked as frontline workers.  They knew firsthand that trying to find help, whether for yourself or for someone else, is a complicated and overwhelming process.  Their goal in developing HelpSeeker was to simplify the process, so that people could get access to help more quickly.

We appreciate that often people seeking help are those in very vulnerable situations, and we designed HelpSeeker using that lens.  The app is completely anonymous to use, and is free to download.  It can be used on any Smartphone (Apple or Android device) or can be searched using any desktop with internet access, in 23 different languages. 

Navigators can select from over 80 different search tags to search for issues particular to their needs, or they can use our smart search bar, which recognizes informal terms that might be used (ie. if someone types in “I’m hungry”, the smart search would know to find services that offer food).  Based on the search results, navigators can click on the listing to see a short and helpful description about the organization and their services/programs, contact information, hours of operation, whether the person fits the eligibility criteria, whether or not the service or building is wheelchair accessible, and in certain cases, whether the organization has enough the ability to help them right away. From there, they can either call or email the organization directly.

There is also a map that the navigator can see where the organization is located, as well as a directions button that connects to Google maps, so that people can plan their route to get there.

 

What’s the current scope of the app in terms of locations where it is available?

We are currently available in more than 200 Canadian communities, but thanks to a recent investment from CMHC, we will be in every Canadian community within the next 3 years.

 

What are some of the trends you have been able to see through the app’s data and are you / how are you / using that to improve its efficacy?

Having the ability to compare what supports people are searching for with where supports are located is really useful, as it provides a starting point for identifying where possible gaps and/or duplications exist.  The data can also be used to help improve program design, and to help communities develop responses to rapidly changing needs, like what we experienced with COVID.

We’re always taking feedback from service providers and people using the app on ways to improve the user experience. Look for new improvements later this year!

 

COVID Social Issues Infographic – 69,000 hits in Alberta & what people are looking for help on (CNW Group/HelpSeeker Inc)

Have social service organizations been open to the idea of the app?

Yes!  The response from social service organizations has been tremendous, especially as they appreciate the important role they play in the overall systems transformation process, and discover how the app can really help their staff and frontline workers spend more time working one-on-one with their clients, instead of spending time in front of a computer navigating services. Organizational leaders like that they can use the service provider dashboard to get a snapshot of their organization’s overall program capacity, which can help guide decisions for future programming and funding allocations. They also like that people who have used their services can send private feedback directly to their organization, so that they can assess how to improve their service delivery.

 

 What is the biggest roadblock you have faced with the app’s implementation or progress?

Our most exciting challenge is getting the app into the hands of people who need it. We’re continually brainstorming new strategies to do this!  And we are always on the lookout for people that can help us raise awareness in their community.

 

What’s your favourite feature of the app?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one favourite feature!  I would say that my favourite feature is our smart search bar, which has the ability to recognize everyday, common terms, like “I’m hungry” or “need clothes”, and will show results accordingly.  It’s very cool!  We’re always adding new features, so  stay tuned for more!

 

You can download the HelpSeeker App and the Wellbeing Screener for free wherever you get your apps!


Service at Alpha House

Shaundra Bruvall | December 4, 2020

We Seek to Provide Hope through Direct Service and the Promotion of Well Being

Many years ago early in my career at Alpha House I was offered the task of facilitating a value clarification exercise with staff. For a day we processed together to produce a document of our beliefs statements and working values. At the time we were faced with the possibility of government funding cuts as Calgary entered an energy/oil/gas industry bust and province wide austerity measures. The possibility of losing our shelter was on the table. Our effort to express our values and beliefs given these real stressors helped us to stay focused on what was important to our ongoing work…the client comes first.

Together we generated a summary belief statement for our client centered work…’we provide hope through direct service and the promotion of well-being‘.

It was a great message for ourselves to own and to share with the community. We made it clear to all, funders included that for Alpha House the client was our number one concern and so should it also be theirs. We expressed strongly that our programs at the time shelter and detox were essential to meeting the needs of those marginalized by addiction, mental health, and chronic homelessness. We didn’t underestimate then (nor do we now) of how the articulation of our values and beliefs propelled us to move forward.

From that experience of staff solidarity, I came to know that the heart of Alpha House is its shelter; it is the heart of all our programs as we strive to meet our mandate of providing safe and caring environments for men and women with alcohol and other drug dependencies, across a continuum of care. I don’t say this to disparage our detox, outreach and housing programs. Far from it, it is just that there no mistake that for most of us as new hires, we are trained and work first in the shelter. Shelter is where our staff find their inspiration and where our agencies collective imagination takes flight. The shelter is where staff bear witness. It is where we encourage hope and well-being. It is where action is taken to reduce harm and to embrace the possibility of client defined and driven recovery.

It can also be a place of heartbreak and despair that further calls us to action.

For some staff, the work is overwhelming. It can be difficult to adjust to a value system that is non-judgmental and client focused; to let go of our personal agendas isn’t easy.  To unlearn what even our schooling sometimes gets wrong. Many well meaning folks who have seen clients as people to be saved have been burned out by the work involved to strive for such a lofty and impossible goal. It is the walk not the talk that matters and also it is the walk not the talk that trips us up. It isn’t an easy walk with the client who is in almost constant crisis and in the end must save herself. Some staff have hung in there and still work on this understanding while others have moved on early to find a better fit for themselves elsewhere.

It is in our shelter where staff learn that there is no turning away from the impact of historic and real time trauma and the symptomatic expression through addiction and mental health. It is in the shelter the impact of intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, systemic racism, gender and sexual orientation discrimination, sexism and grief are witnessed. It is in the shelter that the hearts of our staff are broken and where as staff we also find tremendous healing. It is where our often broken clients can find if even momentarily some sense of healing in their lives. The secret to our own healing as staff is the challenge to create space for hope. It may require as staff to show our own vulnerability in order to mirror to our clients our belief in their worthiness. In doing so we reinforce our own and their worthiness as a person and find healing together.

We model for the client a different way to be in the world through our consistency and awareness of power and how it is held between us. It is in the shelter that the seeds of worthiness are planted, maybe for the first time; where a client is seen as more than their addiction and bit by bit can let go of the shame that shuts her down. Working in the shelter means letting go of power and responding pragmatically to what caring really means. To actually seeing the client and to be willing to be seen by them. This work, what can only be defined as compassion has infiltrated throughout our history and into the marrow of all our programs here in Calgary and in Lethbridge. It has enhanced our education, diverse skills and tool kits and has created generous and seasoned workers who daily show up to build capacity and resilience with our clients; always placing them first.

In closing…this is my last offering for this log series as I mark 25 years at Alpha House. It comes as we prepare in this year of pandemic for staff service recognition and appreciation week in early December. I am so proud of all our staff across our programs who truly strive to leave no client behind.

Peace,

David Burke

 


A Letter from our Executive Director

Shaundra Bruvall | November 25, 2020

The Holiday Season is often a time of reflection as we look back on the year that was and anticipate what will be when the calendar turns on January 1st. Without question, 2020 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for our city, our country and the world.

At Alpha House, we have done our best to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on the vulnerable people we serve, both in Calgary and in our new stabilization centre and shelter in Lethbridge. We’ve collaborated with partners to find and provide safe shelter that will meet all protocols and guidelines, asked our staff to go above and beyond in caring for clients, and we’ve taken every precaution we can to keep men and women seeking our help, safe.

Despite many new challenges, our priority remains the same as it’s always been: to meet the needs of individuals whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies.

 With our resources being stretched thin, this year more than ever, we need your help. Since 2018, Tom Jackson – a beloved Canadian musician, actor and philanthropist and Alpha House volunteer – has dedicated one of his annual “The Huron Carole” concerts to support Alpha House. Last year’s sold-out concert raised funds for our Downtown Outreach Addiction Program, also known as the DOAP Team.

 On Tuesday December 1, the annual Huron Carole concert “Light Inside” is going virtual in support of our DOAP Team, and recovery programs in Calgary and Lethbridge.

As Tom so eloquently says, “Under the cloud of these challenging times, those less fortunate in our world are going to be the ones most impacted by the current economic fall-out from Covid 19. This Christmas season is going to be different from any other. It’s going to require us, as individuals and as a society, to look inside ourselves for a light of optimism. A silver lining. We must treasure that light and hang on to that silver lining with all our might.”

It is our request and hope that you will join us for this treasured holiday tradition celebrating the music and meaning of the season. Tickets are just $15 or $30 (includes a VIP pre-show experience with Tom).

We understand that this is an incredibly difficult time for our community. If you are able, please join us for an evening that is sure to lift your spirits and that will give hope to other Calgarians as we all reach for the light inside.

Tickets are available here.

You may also donate to Alpha House online.

With thanks,

Kathy


Alpha House Partnership: Calgary Police Services

Shaundra Bruvall | September 10, 2020

If I was to offer an introduction of the 40 year history of Alpha House two important groups would stand out…the now decommissioned Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and Calgary Police Services.

A little back ground:

On April 15, 1970, the government of Alberta approved the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Act, which created the Alberta Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Commission. With this Act came the clear delineation of drug abuse prevention as part of AADAC’s responsibility along with the continuation of alcohol abuse prevention (“Alcoholism” was shortened to “Alcohol” in 1985.)

In April 2009 AADAC (Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission) was decommissioned after 25 years as part of the amalgamation of the previous 9 health regions, Alberta cancer board, and Alberta mental health board. The amalgamation is now complete and all of the old AADAC’s services are now part of the newly named Addiction and Mental Health services of the Alberta Health Services. The combination of addiction and mental health services is in keeping with the trend of recognizing the importance of concurrent disorders. Addiction and mental health services will now focus on 3 streams which includes addiction primarily, mental health primarily and concurrent disorders. – Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine August 2009 Vol 13 Number 2

I’m not an expert on the history of Calgary Police Services (CPS) so please excuse me as I move forward. What I do understand from oral accounts is that Alpha House from its conception drew from AADAC, the Solicitor General’s office, and Calgary policing.

“Early Alpha House members came from ADDAC or had a history of working in addictions, some also came from CPS and this included some with dual associations in self-help step programs. This group of individuals with the backing of the Solicitor General through sheer determination helped to make Alpha House a reality.”

Stuart Hutton
CPS DOAP Recognition Award Plaque 2011

Calgary Alpha House Society was incorporated in fall of 1981 and opened its door in January of 1982. Its mission was to provide a safe and caring environment for men and women with alcohol and other addictions. Its innovation was a shelter tied to a detox centre in one location complimenting the efforts of an AADAC run medical detox with a non-profit social model of shelter and detox.

In recognition, Alpha House 10 years of service with AADAC

Alpha House began at a time when Calgary Police Services were hoping to divert people from their city cell system, which often included ticketing those least able to pay and ended with many being incarcerated for minor public intoxication infractions. Alpha House quickly became an alternate to city cells across all city police districts. Innovations with the non-profit sector eventually included CPS liaison officers who could respond to those with alcohol and other drug dependencies and now includes directorship on the Alpha House society board. Something mutually healthy evolved. Not perfect but progressive. (Remember that this period included a war on drugs mentality that to this day impacts and hampers public discourse and policy.)

By the early 1980’s non- profits like Alpha House became funded agencies under AADAC (and eventually under Addiction and Mental Health). AADAC and its lens towards prevention impacted not only the addiction change models that Alpha House would work from but also the justice and policing models that would emerge around addiction and mental health and under provincial diversion programs which would follow. CPS were hoping to pull away from the ‘drunk tank’ approach towards public intoxication and Alpha House was mandated to bring withdrawal stabilization and  recovery planning to those caught in the cycle of addiction. Government policy changes helped these approaches at Alpha House and CPS to mature. Our mandate to provide safe and caring places for people with alcohol and other drug dependencies gave us the adaptability to respond to the changing nature of recovery and the health based issues related to addiction and mental health. CPS and its core values Respect, Honesty, Compassion, Courage, Fairness, Accountability and Integrity are values Alpha House supports.

The day to day experience for Alpha House and CPS has continued to involve over the years. I can recall the involvement of beat officers (later Community Peace Officers). Seasoned officers often made it a point to introduce new recruits and rookie officers to Alpha House. Alpha House maintained a high degree of confidentiality from its earliest days and Calgary Police Services recognized that our focus was different from policing. Our focus was about building relationships so as to encourage recovery and trust was what made that happen. CPS respected this and we also worked to not break trust with them.

Officers who dropped off intoxicated clients learned quickly that we were ready to respond and through our respect for the client we conveyed respect to the role as police officers. The ensuing decades for Alpha House and CPS was a progressive time as both addressed the impact of migration, immigration and reparation in an ever changing city with a growing, diverse population. Through oil and gas booms and busts the city grew quickly and agencies like Alpha House and services like CPS responded. CPS saw that building strong relationships with communities was a way to prevent crime. By the time Alpha House was ready to expand its shelter and detox models and to start the operation of its Outreach (DOAP) team and its focused housing programs, CPS was also ready to embrace these diversion programs that we were offering. Throughout they have remained an ally in the work we do.

Perhaps one of my happiest moments along with others here at Alpha House was when the Calgary Police Service Strategic Indigenous Road Map was introduced. It mirrors our own intentions to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work of the Aboriginal Liaison Officer is important to us and we hope that every district will have one on staff soon. Likewise we appreciate the efforts of the Calgary Police Services Diversity Resource Team and its role in the LBGTQ community who we also serve.

Policing, I believe as it is for those of us working in addictions, isn’t an easy gig. We have been able to learn from each other and are painfully aware of gaps. I have seen individuals in both fields struggle in ways that they probably looking back would now regret. There are also things to unlearn to make way for new innovations. What changes groups in the end seems to be not so much individual behavior but policy measures. What Alpha House got right was there from its inception, build relationships based on care and safety. It is hoped our partnership with CPS continues to grow and evolve given that shared mandate.

David is marking his 25th year of service at Alpha House with a series of blogs. David is humbled to be allowed to express his views in recognition that he does not speak for the agency as a whole.


Grief and Loss at Alpha House: A Personal Reflection*

Shaundra Bruvall | June 30, 2020

(* As a personal reflection I am recalling my own experience of what for most is a very personal experience and in no way am speaking for someone else’s experience.. Also this is not a speculation on causes of death which is probably at the expected rate for the size of the population of the city of Calgary) 

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The above picture and poem are part of the pop-up memorial for clients that have died and are remembered by staff and other clients at Alpha House. At least twice yearly we commemorate the passing of clients with boards like the one above filled with coloured butterflies bearing the names of those who have recently passed away. The display is set up for a month and then we offer a memorial service for all wanting to attend. At the memorial service we drum and sing, offer smudge, lite candles, and speak prayers for a safe crossing as the names are read. We close with a favorite song, or with antidotes and stories of those who have passed. At the end refreshments often along with a meal is served, reminding  us all that we need to care for ourselves as we grieve and move on with our lives.

Talking with staff and clients about grief and loss I have been told of some of the specific ways that people mark the death of someone they knew, worked with closely or carry in some way as a loss. Several take flowers they find growing wild or rocks that attract their eye and drop them into the Elbow River or Bow River from a bridge or shoreline, adding a prayer as they symbolically let the deceased person go. Some set adrift ordinary brown bags with a lighted tea candle inside and set them on the river just before dawn or later after sunset with a similar prayer of letting go. At one ceremony for a deceased staff member we set fifty or so helium filled balloons to the afternoon sky as a way of saying safe journey. Before COVID19 it is not unusual for staff and clients to join with family members and there memorial services for a love one. At times we have accommodated a family or group of friends to use our space at Alpha House for that purpose. Some client’s display their grief verbally with tearful out breaks and even what can seem like anger; some with the funny and the dear stories they remember. Staff debrief and talk things out with trusted colleagues and supports. Formally and informally those that survive find their ways to grieve and move forward from loss. As humans we need to express our grief and loss often collectively and always personally. Tears are shed and rituals are given meaning as we mark the dignity of life and of dying of those whose lives have touched our own.

 My personal experience with death and dying spans my career as a social worker. My first job as a caseworker with the then known AIDS Calgary taught me a few things about grieving and its importance. My work at Alpha House has continued to be a teacher in this regard. Many of our people have died without family near and as staff we were in that fortunate place to bear witness to their life, truly an honour. In these days of COVID19 as it once was during the AIDS epidemic it seems like grief and loss is everywhere. All the more reason to rely on rituals especially those specific to ourselves to acknowledge the impact of loss in our collective and personal lives. Under COVID19 restrictions our group memorial will have to wait as we remain attuned to the expression of grief.

 To bear witness at the passing of a client I have known is to not give in to the adage that ‘the person now is in a better place’. It may be true they are, but I have learned that people can be the most alive in their dying. I often use phrases like ‘they are in a better place ‘or  ‘at least they are no longer suffering’ to give reason to the experience that even when someone’s dying  is expected it can often feel sudden and too soon. By not using these phrases or getting beyond them I am better able to speak to their lived lives; the great desire people have to keep living through the difficult challenges of addiction and mental health. Death came as clients were busy living, loving and caring in the best ways they knew.

 This doesn’t mean we forget what can improve people’s lives and the challenges they face. Each passing reminds us to keep to the task at hand of improving the lives that we touch and touch us.  Issues from poverty to homelessness, racism and colonialism and the failed war on drugs are part of this ongoing work. The lives of those who have died help us to remember the ongoing work as a society we need to do.

 Alpha House takes people where they are at and our challenge is to advocate for change in our non-judgmental capacity. It is helpful to recall the community the client lived in and drew support from and not just their history of trauma and missteps they may have taken. That is why when family and friends come to a service we are hosting or when we can attend one of theirs what makes us equals shine through. When clients who knew the deceased gather outside for an impromptu remembrance these can be so meaningful. When staff and clients can share smudge (outside in small gathering these days) closure is made possible.

For the clients who have died I remember them as people who lived resourcefully, with humor, resilience, eccentricity, and with love and caring for others in all ways that humans express their humanity to each other. Addiction and mental health in the end didn’t defeat them, just as addiction and mental health aren’t the conclave of the marginalized, homeless and impoverished as it crosses all social and economic status. I choose to recall the aliveness, joy, love and cultural expression of those who have gone before.

David is marking his 25th year of service at Alpha House with a series of blogs.