News & Events

Harm Reduction

Shaundra Bruvall | February 2, 2024

Harm Reduction

The social services sector evolves with the needs of the people that it serves; harm reduction has become a leading framework for those working with individuals facing homelessness and substance use challenges because of its effectiveness in minimizing risk in situations involving physical health, mental health, and/or substance use.

Understanding Harm Reduction

First off, what is harm reduction? Harm reduction is a non-judgmental approach that seeks to reduce the health and social harms associated with an action that is inherently risky. In the social services and addiction sector, we seek to reduce the harm associated with substance use, without requiring individuals that use substances to immediately abstain. We often refer to this as ‘meeting people where they are at’ instead of placing a moral judgement on their behaviour i. The goal is to reduce harm in the immediate while supporting conversations and options around what reducing harm can look like long-term.

Why Not Abstinence?

For many people, substance use is part of recreational activities, and risk of long-term substance use disorders is minimal, but for others it can develop into an addiction that significantly impacts all other areas of that individual’s life iii. A common misconception about harm reduction is that it is an enabling action and that abstinence isn’t an option within a harm reduction model. Harm reduction is about giving individuals the power to make decisions for themselves, and that can mean anything from continuing to use substances, reduced substance use, choosing abstinence, and everything in-between. This framework is here to support individuals in improving their circumstances over time with a non-judgmental approach, and, ultimately, to help people lay the foundation for lasting change in their lives.

Harm Reduction in Practice

Harm reduction in practice can look very different depending on its application and doesn’t only apply to situations involving substance use. People engage in harm reduction practices every day, often without realizing it; for example, putting on sunscreen to reduce the harm of sun exposure, wearing a seatbelt when driving a car to reduce the risk of serious injury in the event of a car accident, and using oven mitts when cooking are all examples of harm reduction measures.

In the realm of substance use, overdose prevention sites are part of reducing harm due to toxicity or quantity. Overdose prevention sites have considerable positive impacts on those in active addiction. These sites reduce the harm of illicit drugs by providing a safe and clean environment where people are monitored by medical professionals to ensure quick, life-saving action in the event of an overdose. These sites are known to reduce costs for the healthcare system, prevent illnesses, and most importantly prevent overdose fatalities ii. Other examples of harm reduction practices and services relating to substance use might be:

  • Outreach programs
  • Safe supply
  • Needle exchange programs
  • Opioid replacement therapies
  • Drug testing kits/services
  • Use of naloxone kits

 

Harm Reduction and Homelessness

Alongside the need for shelter, unhoused individuals face many challenges that compound experiences of homelessness. We know that individuals living on the street are at a higher risk of mental illness, physical health issues, and basic hygiene challenges; in some cases we see substance use become a coping mechanism for individuals on the street as a response to struggling with the challenges (and trauma) of experiencing homelessness. Unhoused individuals often experience barriers to health care on top of not having access to basic hygiene supplies, resulting in a higher number of negative health outcomes such as infections, Hepatitis B and C, and HIV. This is why ensuring unhoused individuals have access to safe supply like sterile water, needles, and glass pipes is essential to ensuring the safety of unhoused folks.

Harm reduction is a practice related to substance use as one example, but other health interventions are harm reduction practices that are equally important. Access to clean clothing, for example, reduces harm by removing dirt, bacteria, fleas, and other irritants which helps reduce the occurrence of infections, rashes, and disease. Access to showers, as another example, reduces the harm of infestations like scabies, fleas, and head lice which individuals on the street are at a higher risk of due to infrequency of washing supplies iv. Once the immediate safety of the individual is addressed, there is room for support, referrals, and goal setting towards other improved circumstances.

The overall goal of harm reduction is to minimize the negative consequences involved with an inherently risky action (such as substance use) while recognizing that each individual’s circumstances are different and require a unique, non-judgmental approach.

If you want to learn more about the root causes of homelessness, harm reduction, and practical strategies on how you can better navigate interactions with this population, we offer a free 90-minute workshop twice a month at the carya Village Commons. You can learn more about the workshop and available dates here.

References

  1. Thomas, G. (2005) Harm Reduction Policies and Programs Involved for Persons Involved in the Criminal Justice System. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Use.
  2. Mental health. CMHA Ontario. (n.d.). https://ontario.cmha.ca/harm-reduction/#:~:text=What%20are%20some%20examples%20of,for%20people%20who%20inject%20drugs.
  • Harm reduction. Harm Reduction | The Homeless Hub. (n.d.). https://www.homelesshub.ca/about-homelessness/substance-use-addiction/harm-reduction
  1. Thelwell, K. (2020, October 24). Struggles obtaining convenient access to showers. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/access-to-showers/

 


Donating Expertise

Shaundra Bruvall | December 16, 2023

Supporting Vulnerable Populations: Donating Services and Expertise

With the need out there so great, giving back to the community feels more important than ever. Monetary donations are one of the most common ways to donate, but giving back through pro bono work can be even more impactful. Donating professional services fills essential capability gaps for non-profits and is an effective way to break down barriers for vulnerable populations by providing access to services that they would otherwise be unable to access.

Non-profits often have few resources for extraneous programming (i.e. programming not specifically included in our Shelter funding). Volunteers with unique expertise, whether it’s legal advice, graphic design, or IT supports, can fill gaps and support programs in different ways, resulting in greater positive impacts for the community.

A few examples of professional services that has been donated to Alpha House in the past are haircuts, yoga classes, and acupuncture sessions. Here’s a few examples of professional services that have been donated, and how their impact goes beyond monetary support:

Legal Services

Pro bono work in the legal sector is a great example of how invaluable donating expertise can be to non-profits, and more importantly, the vulnerable populations that we serve. Accessing legal services is gatekept by significant financial barriers, making them out of reach for most vulnerable individuals and non-profits; having this expertise donated is often the only way they can access these services that are essential to improving their circumstances. Working directly with clients isn’t the only way to donate legal services either; providing your knowledge and expertise in how to navigate the legal system can be a big asset to non-profits working in this sector.

Acupuncture

Integrative Health Centre has been working with Alpha House to provide our clients acupuncture treatment based on the NADA Protocol, a treatment model developed in the 1970’s to help individuals with substance use disorder with their recovery. This acupuncture is effective in helping with trauma, anxiety, depression, irritability, and cravings. This treatment is a nonverbal, non-threatening intervention that is well suited for group sessions; this means that there is no need to talk about past experiences/trauma, making it accessible for a lot of our clients. Therapeutic services like these are important to the recovery process, and without practitioners willing to donate their time, they would be otherwise unavailable to vulnerable populations that need them.

“This partnership with Alpha House has been very rewarding and I’m honoured in providing treatments and supports for the clients.”

  • Lynda Smith, Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Haircuts

Haircuts are a great example of an essential service that homeless individuals would otherwise not spend money on, in favour of prioritizing food or other essential items. When it comes to homelessness, and especially long-term homelessness, basic hygiene such as hair maintenance can become a big struggle. Improved self-esteem and dignity are huge benefits to receiving a haircut as an unhoused individual, but the biggest benefit is the improved health outcomes that comes with clean hair and a practical haircut that they can maintain. Long, unkempt hair over a long period of time can lead to issues like matting, causing that individual pain and discomfort until they’re able to access the resources they need to maintain their hair.

We want to encourage businesses to offer ‘Volunteer Time Off’, which gives employees their regular compensation for hours spent volunteering at a charity/community organization. Encouraging employees to volunteer their expertise gives them the opportunity to work closely with a cause they care about and to see the positive impact of their contribution firsthand. This can be a powerful motivator— giving employees the opportunity to work in different environments can bring fresh perspectives and ideas into your company and raise morale all around.

What if you want to donate your expertise but commuting or finding a schedule that matches up with yours is an issue? Virtual volunteering is a great way to volunteer when you need a more flexible opportunity. VolunteerConnector is a useful resource for Albertans looking to find virtual volunteering opportunities; there are plenty of volunteer postings that cover a range of professions under the ‘work remotely’ filter.

We as a society are more divided than ever before in a world that demands collective action to address modern social issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, and discrimination. Supporting your community through donating your expertise is a powerful way to make an impact and contribute to positive social change firsthand. Pro bono work bridges the gap between businesses and non-profits by addressing the resource, capacity, and skills constraints that many non-profits face. By coming together as a community, we can work towards breaking the cycle of homelessness, getting people the help that they need, and building a more sustainable future.

 


Volunteering at Alpha House

Shaundra Bruvall | December 7, 2023

There are many quotes that describe the contribution a volunteer makes, from

“Nothing liberates our greatness, like the desire to help, the desire to serve.” 
Marianne Williamson

“Without volunteers, we’d be a nation, without a soul” 
Rosalynn Carter

“Here’s to all volunteer, those dedicated people who believe in all work and no pay.” 
Robert Orben

 

A mix of heart felt sentiment and clichés abound in describing the impact volunteers have on the collective nonprofit they offer their time to supporting.

I believe in volunteering and, like volunteers I oversee at Alpha House, I offer my time when I can to agencies and groups that mean something to me. Like helping at a casino or giving time to a meditation group I support. Like volunteers at Alpha House, it helps me to balance out my lived experience and to feel alive within the body politic. It is self-serving as much as it is other-serving; a way of relating and being present in the world, an openness to being responsive and caring.

I have been involved in volunteering and with volunteers since I worked at Volunteer Calgary, and in my first social work job at what was known then as AIDS Calgary. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, volunteering was then both an activity and about activism, and I valued that side of volunteerism that encouraged community engagement. I took this approach to my later assigned role as Volunteer Manager at Alpha House. This blog reflects some thoughts on this role and some of the volunteers I have worked with.

Volunteers at Alpha House compliment staff and never replace them in their work. Our staff are very astute and caring and, in my experience, do not flinch in taking on tasks that are in service of a client. Volunteers as Board Members have been present since the inception of Alpha House as a response to those with alcohol and other drug dependencies in Calgary. Likewise, we have had self-help group volunteers and various faith and corporate groups that have supported us over the years. What I have enjoyed witnessing the most are people with lots of passion, volunteers and staff that have made space for each other and have worked together. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Bertha joined us in 2008 while we were in a period of renovation. Bertha and her family started a small soup kitchen in the shelter for shelter clients. She not only provided soup and sandwiches but came and served the shelter clients as well. This was a new venture for us and volunteers and staff made it work smoothly. Later, this initial intention would evolve into our present day Shelter Daily Meal Kitchen that still encourages volunteer support when available. Later, Bertha also began a monthly music group for Detox clients. A cacophony of healing sound was generated from the musical instruments that Bertha and her friends provided for each session. It became a favorite experience for clients especially when being surrounded by drums that immersed the person in healing heart like beats of caring. Bertha was a sentinel of openness and inclusiveness. We lost Berth during the pandemic but her presence can still be felt by those that knew her or experience her smile and welcome.

Another volunteer who made a difference was a young man newly sober and in a step program who wanted to give back to Alpha House. I will leave him anonymous but when I first met him he had five years of sobriety, and I cautioned him that although he wanted to volunteer in detox, that many in step recovery often grew frustrated with clients for whatever reason who were taking baby steps rather than the leaps known in some step programs as essential to recovery. He immediately offered to stay fast for a year and I took him on as the first Detox Mentor. Over that year he grew in the estimation of both clients and the staff as he worked in various roles from making beds to escorting clients to and from the in house clinic and under staff guidance a relapse topic presenter to the clients as a group. In many ways he lived rather than talked about his experience, strength and hope and gave me an understanding of what our volunteer as a Detox Mentor could offer. More importantly he gave me insight into how lived experience can benefit our clients and that the voices of those with lived experiences are needed at Alpha House in the many ways they materialize. He helped open the door to view clients as potential volunteers.

Advocates for client support groups also came to Alpha House through the volunteer route. Mary-Anne and Cate were two such women. We had met as volunteers at Lougheed House Gardens and got to talking at break one day. I was overseeing a project where clients volunteered and watered Lougheed House Gardens and other City Parks Department gardens on hot summer days. Mary-Anne and Cate got to know some of the women that came with me. Mary-Anne and Cate proposed a group for women with the goals of providing a safe place to talk openly (without men present) and where learning from the experience of other women could be highlighted. The group has evolved over the last ten years now inviting many women to explore often for the first time to learn how self help groups can benefit them. Cate remains a facilitator of the women’s group and Linda is now her co chair.

This is an opportunity to mention that staff started an interactive support group for shelter women around the same time, a beautiful expression based on the harm reduction approach of sisters doing it for themselves and not without them. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive the pandemic. Both groups are examples of meeting needs of people as they arise and supporting them as they stepped out of their usual comfort zones. Both groups helped women find safer passage to recovery orientated groups that have been a mainstay at Alpha House, like AA. NA, CA.

A more recent story involves community engagement from the volunteer side. A young couple who saw our ad in their elevator in the building they were renting an apartment in, responded by coming over for a tour and eventually volunteering in our Kitchen Helper positions. For several years they have been faithfully booking time on their Sundays to help prepare Sunday Lunch to our clients in detox and shelter. Recently they announced that they are moving to another city for new job opportunities. We will miss them and the neighbourly goodwill they brought to our work. ‘Creating Community for Everyone’, is an Alpha House catch phrase. Volunteering is its expression in real time.

Today volunteering at Alpha House has a strong team feel. We follow accreditation Canada standards by recognizing the need to protect our vulnerable clients and to ensure our volunteers are aware that their presence matters as part of our collective care. So no matter what task a volunteer is involved in they are asked to consider the merit they give to the client directly or indirectly in the doing.  Moving forward I hope this blog is a reminder that community engagement and volunteering are ever changing and vital to Alpha House and those we serve.

 

Written by David Burke, Volunteer Manager at Alpha House Society


Ways of Caring 2023

Shaundra Bruvall | December 1, 2023

 

‘Tis the season for giving, and what better way to get into the giving spirit than by following along and joining in with us as we explore the many Ways of Caring available for those looking to do a little something for vulnerable individuals in Calgary! We’re very excited to be launching our Ways of Caring Campaign for a 3rd year in a row; from December 1st to the 31st, across all of our social media platforms, we will be sharing different ways you can support Alpha House, our clients, the addiction and homelessness sectors, and other non-profits in the Calgary area.

It’s not all about giving money to our programs, or donating in-kind items for our clients (although, you’re more than welcome to offer your support in those ways); We recognize not everyone is in a position to give monetarily or physically, which is why this campaign will highlight a myriad of ways you can support your community with varying degrees of involvement. The Ways of Caring campaign is designed to be accessible, unique, and engaging— whether you’re looking to be very involved with your act of kindness or you’re looking to offer your support from the comfort of your own home, we’ve got you covered!

Alpha House has been doing the ‘Ways of Caring’ campaign for a couple of years now, because we love giving people the opportunity to show how much they care about social issues in the city and we are continually blown away by the number of people wanting to be a part of our community of giving! Ways of Caring originally started as “12 Ways of Caring”— a play on the classic holiday song titled 12 Days of Christmas. As we continued with this idea, we found that there were many more than 12 ways to do good in the community around the holidays, so we’re bringing you TWENTY-ONE meaningful Ways of Caring for the month of December. Participate in 1, participate in 5, participate in all 21! Whatever and however you choose to engage, we appreciate you coming along with us this holiday season.

In advent calendar fashion, we will be UNVEILING a new WAY of caring on select days in December Follow our social media channels to make sure you don’t miss a day!

However, and in whatever way you can help will make a difference.

Happy Holidays!


Cultural Supports at Alpha House

Shaundra Bruvall | October 1, 2023

Cultural Supports at Alpha House

This Saturday, marks Canada’s third National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The day honours the missing children and survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities (Heritage, 2023). Indigenous peoples make up roughly 45% of our clientele, many of whom have first-hand or intergenerational trauma associated with residential schools. As such we recognize the importance of reconciliation and cultural integration in the healing process for those clients, and the importance of providing opportunities for Indigenous activities and programming.

Practices encouraging cultural connection/reconnection in addictions treatment improves client’s wellness in all areas. Cultural programming addresses wellness in a holistic sense, offering a different approach than the Western model of medicine (Rowan et al., 2014). Holistic supports consider all potential factors contributing to well-being, which includes the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional wellbeing of an individual.

Alpha House is lucky to work with Elders, Knowledge Keepers, Indigenous Support workers, and Peer Support workers throughout our programs to provide cultural supports for clients. Providing these resources to clients can provide direction and help individuals gain a sense of identity, which are important tools in sustaining recovery.

One of the ways we provide cultural supports is through our Cultural Connection Camps.

Cultural Connection Camps are an important part of Alpha House’s cultural programming, providing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients with the opportunity to connect with their heritage and the community, and reconnect with the land. Clients from our Detox, Housing, or Shelter programs can sign up to attend a staff run trip to a 3-night, 4-day camp. Camp activities include:

  • Tipi raising and painting
  • Building a sweat lodge
  • Cultural teachings and stories
  • Scraping elk hides
  • Horseback riding
  • Crafts (talking sticks and/or dreamcatchers)
  • Campfires

The sweat lodge ceremony is an integral part of our cultural programming, being a part of our regular weekly programming as well as the cultural connection camps. The sweat ceremony is a ritual where participants enter a dome-shaped structure that is heated by pouring water onto heated rocks to create steam. This is meant to heat up the interior in order to encourage the sweating out of negative energies and toxins (Gadacz, 2006). In our cultural connection camps, participants build sweat lodges from the ground up before participating in the ritual; this is usually a highlight for many participants, finding fulfillment in working together as a team toward a common goal. Here’s what a few of the clients that participated in our last cultural connection camp had to say:

“Well structured and eye opening, I haven’t experienced something like this in years. It was great as a group to assemble the tipi and rebuild the sweat lodge. The nature was something we were all craving and the people and staff who attended were all very helpful and respectful. There were activities such as bean bag toss, horse shoes and campfire songs. Being able to help gather the wood for the fire for the sweat and the willows for the rebuilding of the sweat lodge was a great feeling and a sense of belonging. I would recommend it to anyone who attends detox who wants to reconnect with their spiritual side especially if they felt spiritually bankrupt like I was before the trip. Thanks, Alpha House you rock! Keep up the good work. “

  • Paul

“Having the opportunity to learn how to put together a teepee was a great learning experience. There was team work which I as an individual am new to dealing with will only lead to more willingness to be involved with group activities. I never knew how rewarding being a part of something bigger than myself could be. I enjoyed taking part in building a sweat lodge. Chopping wood was also another amazing experience I have never done that before. The camp showed me how you can do things sober and actually enjoy them. I am grateful for Alpha House and the support they offer. I would not have the courage without the help of Alpha. “

  • Christopher

“My experience was different for me as we worked as a group it was nice to see all of us work together as a tribe as we were building a new sweat lodge and changing teepee skin and so many other tasks like wood gathering, chopping, clearing bushes, food etc. and experience the sweat it self along with prayer in another culture. Overall, it was a great experience and would recommend or even go again if I could even though the first day was a mud bag we all manage to pull it together and it made me feel a lot better about myself through my recovery. The sweat was refreshing and hot and my experience has been new and refreshing body and mind. I learned to pray not only but realized how much I should have loved my self and others and the ground we walk on, the air we breathe. It is not recognized as much as we should and I’m grateful for the experience so I’d like to thank Alpha House staff and Brad and fam for letting me experience such a beautiful thing and I recommend to all people that are in recovery or not to try out. Thank you so much. Me, myself will keep going to sweat and Wellbriety as much as I can and whenever the opportunity is there. It has really made me think and change a lot of thing in my life and surroundings and mind. Thank you. “

  • Tommy

Cultural supports are available for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients so everyone can experience the spiritual, physical, mental, and practical benefits of this programming on their recovery journey.

Recovery is a difficult journey to take on alone. Providing clients with the opportunity to discuss what’s on their mind and tackle obstacles in a group setting is invaluable in supporting individuals towards recovery. Through engaging in activities like building a tipi in a group, traditional ceremonies, and storytelling, individuals are given the opportunity to reflect, strengthen their connection to the physical and spiritual world, and rediscover their identity and place in the community. This is a powerful motivator, and can be the important piece for an individual to sustain their recovery.

 

 

Rowan, M., Poole, N., Shea, B., Gone, J. P., Mykota, D., Farag, M., Hopkins, C., Hall, L., Mushquash, C., & Dell, C. (2014, September 1). Cultural interventions to treat addictions in indigenous populations: Findings from a scoping study – substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy. BioMed Central. https://substanceabusepolicy.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1747-597X-9-34#citeas

Gadacz, R. R. (2006, February 7). Sweat Lodge. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sweat-lodge

Heritage, C. (2023, September 26). Government of Canada. Canada.ca. https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/national-day-truth-reconciliation.html


Activating Spaces: Welcome Signs

Shaundra Bruvall | September 27, 2023

Seven Permanent-Supportive Housing buildings – seven welcome signs. Each sign was a labour of love; designed, cut, built, and painted entirely by hand, with a unique concept and design created specifically for each building. The way our clients got involved in the painting of each sign made all of the work worthwhile. We owe a big thank you to the staff who made this possible and our clients, who responded to the project with so much care and enthusiasm. As well, a tremendous thank you to Activate YYC for choosing Alpha House as an ActivateYYC grant recipient. See pictures below:

 

 


Memorial Wall

Shaundra Bruvall | August 31, 2023

We’re standing in Alpha House’s Cultural Room, a relatively new space we created for client programming. The wall at the entrance of the space has recently been prepped and primed for today’s project and Brandon and Dave, from the Dream Centre’s Woodshop Program are looking forward to getting started. This project has been several months in the making.

Alpha House has commissioned the Dream Centre’s Woodshop Program to create a memorial wall for those lives that have been lost to addiction. Brandon has been with the woodshop for 2 years; Dave: 1 month but it’s a project meaningful to people on both sides.

“This one is a little bit different than the normal projects. I always wanted to do something like this with the dream centre but that hasn’t worked out yet.”

Brandon says he’s enjoyed working on the project; he went through the Dream Centre’s Addiction Treatment program over 3 years ago so it mattered to him to make sure the design was done right. “When I originally did the quote it was with cheaper wood, but as we started mapping it out, we decided to use something that had more weight and substance to it cause of what the project was about.”

The design was important to Alpha House too. We provided foundational imagery for Brandon and his team – we wanted the butterfly represented, a long standing image Alpha House has aligned with, because it symbolizes not only the fact that we all go through change in our lives, but also that we can experience periods of darkness and still come out the other side to something beautiful. The tree felt like the best way to represent that we are all connected to eachother and to the land; the leaves a way to remember each name.

Brandon and his team added their own elements as well. “We had Alpha House’s example to go off of and we incorporated the butterfly as well, but we also wanted to have unique elements.” The idea to use different woods for the leaves (including ash and oak) was a way of creating individuality while still having unity. “We also added a round over to each of the leaves – which we hadn’t originally planned to do – but it added more substance and made a really nice effect overall.”

It feels especially meaningful to have these considerations and personal touches as part of the design for a project memorializing a life. No plan ever goes exactly the way you think, Brandon adds, but there were processes that came about during the creation of the design that added more meaning, which was particular important for everyone involved.

“You’re trying to represent people. Once you really start thinking about it – it’s not like it’s an accent wall in someone’s house.
Once you realize what it’s about you put more thought and heart into it”

Finishing in time for International Overdose Awareness Day wasn’t planned, but this too adds a poetry to the project we couldn’t have predicted. Alpha House has been caring for those with addictions since 1981; the memorial wall was a passion project of ours and we are so grateful to have had the opportunity to bring it together in this way. In an ideal world, we would never have to add another name but until public policy catches up to the realities of addiction, we will hold space in our hearts, our memories, and now here.


Remember that time….

Shaundra Bruvall | June 20, 2023

Looking back 10 years later on the 2013 floods

I’m sitting in a boardroom at Alpha House’s Community Housing and Administration building with 3 longtime Alpha Staff. Each of them was a big part of Alpha House’s initial (and ongoing) response to the flooding that washed away most of Calgary’s downtown in June of 2013. I sat down to hear from them about their experiences and recollections on this 10-year anniversary. We hope you enjoy stepping back in time with us to June 2013 in Calgary, AB and journeying with us through some of the challenges and memories from that crazy 6 months when Calgary was temporarily transformed and the real spirit of community was shown.

 

2013. JUNE. CALGARY, ALBERTA

Alpha House has been in operation for over 30 years but, for the most part, we fly under the radar. We work with a subset of the homeless population through our Shelter, Detox, Housing, and Outreach programs but….things aren’t quite the same in 2013 as they are today. We’re a staff of only 40 (now over 300) with 1 DOAP Team (now 5 teams rebranded to ‘HELP’ and 3 other outreach programs), and only 2 housing buildings (now 7).

Our Shelter still housed 120 beds in June of 2013 as it does today but it was only about 50% full when a Fire Marshall showed up at Alpha House Society on a beautiful, sunny, now infamous day around 5PM to deliver some bad news.

ENTER JADE W, then Shelter Team Lead, who was the one on-site that day to receive the ominous news:

“You need to evacuate your building.”                 

To which, Jade, said, politely, incredulously…. “To where?”

Well… the ‘where’ would be a somewhat unknown answer for several days and, as it turns out, weeks over the course of the summer of 2013.

 

THURSDAY. 20 JUNE 2023. 1700 HOURS. CALGARY ALPHA HOUSE SOCIETY

Take me back to that first moment when the Fire Marshall showed up and told you to evacuate – what were you thinking? What happened? When did you realize this was going to be significant for Alpha House and its clients?

“Well, I didn’t think it was going to be. It was a beautiful sunny day, there wasn’t any visible signs it was going to be a long-term thing. I was Team Lead in the Shelter then and, I remember, there was some disagreement about whether we were going to evacuate. The Fire Marshall is telling me we have to leave and I’ve got one of our Managers behind him saying ‘No, we don’t.’ And I’m trying to figure out a possible evacuation and kind of freaking out and when I asked the Fire Marshall where we were supposed to go, he said ‘you need to go home’ and I remember saying ‘they have nowhere to go; this is their home.’

“This is their home”

 

THURSDAY. 20 JUNE 2023. 1800 HOURS. CALGARY ALPHA HOUSE SOCIETY

Calgary Police Services reports to Alpha House to inform staff there would be a bus arriving in 15 minutes to take everyone to the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

“I was supposed to be off at 6PM,” Jade shares, “but I was there till about 9PM and the new team had come on and we’re trying to get everyone on the bus.”

What was the plan? You said you weren’t thinking long-term but were there any plans put in place?

“Well-no,” Jade says, truthfully. “There were mats still on the floor – we left everything because we didn’t know. We thought we would be back. We were still trying to come up with a game plan because we really didn’t know where we were going or for how long. The one really good thing we did do was empty our parkade of our DOAP vans – which ended up being probably the best thing we did that night.”

Kathy C, then (and current) Executive Director of Alpha House, remembers being one of the last people in the building.

“I remember standing in the Shelter – and that was one of the only times the building has ever been empty – and I kept going out on to the street and just standing there, looking left and right…and just…looking..”

“It was so nice out still.”

“No one knew what was coming.”

 

THURSDAY. 20 JUNE 2023. 2200 HOURS. CALGARY DROP-IN CENTRE

Heavy rainfall on the melting snowpack in the Rocky Mountains combined with steep, rocky terrain caused rapid and intense flooding in southern-Alberta watersheds. The City of Calgary transformed virtually overnight.

Another evacuation happened at the Drop-In Centre overnight as their East Village location was also impacted. The Drop-In Centre had another building off McKnight where they evacuated their people.

Alpha House staff and clients were not evacuated with them. “We didn’t know where we were going to go then,” said Jade.

 

FRIDAY. 21 JUNE 2023. 0200 HOURS. CALGARY, AB.

As the waters rushed towards Calgary, The City issued a flood warning, activated the Municipal Emergency Plan, declared a state of local emergency and gave an evacuation notice for communities at risk.

Alpha House, to this day, serves an incredibly vulnerable community – those who are continually at risk because they are without housing. In a parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic that would shut down the City of Calgary in a different way 7 years later, the 2013 flood would affect those who did not have access to safe housing (outside of the flood zone) most.

The city basically split down the river – if you were on one side, you could access things on your side of the river. “I remember,” says Karen S, Team Lead at one of Alpha House’s 2 housing buildings at the time, Francis Manor, “the five of us [team leads/managers] were on a conference call/ group chat all night because we weren’t sure when we needed to go – when we were going to be needed or where or how. I called Nicole (then Shelter Manager) and said ‘I’m going’ – and she said ‘how? You can’t’ – and I just said ‘I’ll get there.’

“It was a feeling of ‘we’re going to get it done’ –whatever needs to get done”

 

 

FRIDAY. 21 JUNE 2023. 0700 HOURS. CALGARY, AB.

There were a number of spaces setup for people who had been displaced. One of those was Central Memorial High School.

Jade started her day at Francis Manor. “This was before we had staff cell phones so we were using our personal phones and trying to figure out what to do for our clients as we had no building. The DOAP team were packing vans and taking clients to where we were told to go at that time [central memorial HS].”

ENTER MARIANNE, then Shelter Team Lead. “I’m at home and I get a call from Nicole – she said ‘do you think you can get to Central Memorial High School.’ I wasn’t really even aware of what was happening in the neighbourhood because where I lived was unaffected. But I grabbed my backpack and my skateboard (cause I wasn’t sure how far I was going to be able to drive, a pillow (in case I needed to sleep in the car) and I got to the high school.”

Central Memorial High School was not just Alpha House clients and staff though.

“It was chaos,” says Marianne. “I remember I walked in and one of our staff handed me the staff directory and printed staff schedule and that was all we had of Alpha House – those 2 things.”

There had been a lot of movement in the last 12 hours throughout the city and, of course, particularly in the affected areas. Central Memorial was teeming with evacuees, City of Calgary CEMA staff, Alberta Health Services and the Red Cross.

 

“Only a few clients though,” remembers Marianne.

Alpha House had moved all its Detox clients to our housing building, Madison Place, finding ways to accommodate a lot more individuals than the building was built for. It was a rush of coordinating staffing and scheduling, trying to figure out where people were going to go and if they could get there and, more importantly, how to get to our clients.

“We had all our vans going downtown looking for our people,” Jade explains. “They were spending the entire day collecting folks – who were coming out of all sorts of hiding places downtown.”

“We rescued about 100 clients that way”

At some point early on Friday, with Marianne organizing staff with one phone, one directory, and a lot of chaos, Jade, Kathy, and, Finance Manager Vivian, decide they need to get to Alpha House’s Shelter.

“We weren’t supposed to be going back down there. Past a certain point, downtown was blocked off. You could see Alpha House at the end of the street and we ended up getting a ride in from this massive truck that was ferrying people who were stranded on the spiral [the Victoria Park/Stampede Train Station].”

The Shelter was a mess. As staff could hardly have expected the situation Calgary was about to be in, they hadn’t taken anything on evacuation. The rescue mission Jade, Kathy, and Vivian embarked on was to pick up some essentials: cheques, gift cards, supplies, and anything that might help setup a temporary shelter.

 

 

FRIDAY. 21 JUNE 2023. 1700 HOURS. CALGARY, AB.

It was more and more apparent as Friday June 21st dragged on, that Alpha House was not supposed to be at Central Memorial High School. “We were eventually told we had to move to Village Square. Red cross had setup Village Square as yet another evacuee space,” says Marianne.

ENTER KAREN, then Team Lead at Alpha Housing Program, Francis Manor.

On the right side of the river, Karen is there to meet the buses coming from Central Memorial High School, standing alone in front of the concrete steps.

“I’m waiting there and all of a sudden, the buses are coming in and I’m looking everywhere for our people – because it wasn’t just Alpha House – Inn from the Cold and the Mustard Seed all had clients coming – so I’m trying to direct our people to the spot setup in Village Square for us.”

“They [the Red Cross] did such a good job; it was a great setup; the clients loved it”

 

SATURDAY. 22 JUNE 2023. 0700 HOURS. VILLAGE SQUARE LEISURE CENTRE.

In what would become the start of a great deal more awareness and appreciation for Alpha House’s Outreach services, the DOAP team is out supporting Calgary Police Services with evacuations and rescues. They had rescued over a hundred of Alpha House’s clients the day before, but they were still out looking for people in the flooded downtown. And at Village Square, Karen is leading Alpha staff.

“It was pure chaos in some ways,” says Karen, “because all of these people are coming and going; there are 3 organizations with their staff and clients; police everywhere; people on the grass; community members are showing up trying to give food and clothes……. “But we didn’t have HMIS systems then.” jumps in Marianne, the database homeless-serving agencies use to track case management for clients, “so we had no way of checking people in and out and there were people everywhere.”

“Clients were going into withdrawal – because they couldn’t get downtown to get their substance of choice”

The temporary shelter at Village Square lasted one week.

 

 

SUNDAY. 23 JUNE 2023. 0700 HOURS. VILLAGE SQUARE LEISURE CENTRE.

Summer camps at Village Square kicked out the agencies using the space for temporary shelter. Canada Day long-weekend camps were starting and the centre had to be back up and running.

“We couldn’t stay there anyway,” says Karen. “Police were bringing complaints from community members because they weren’t used to seeing our clients out wandering in the community. We were dealing with a whole bunch of people who were trying to be helpful, but there were no systems in place.”

“And while we were working in the different locations, some of our staff were staying in the same evacuation shelters we had been supporting clients in,” adds Marianne.

Eventually, a committee was established to advise on what was going on in the city and to capture what supports were needed and how they could be provided. And, as part of this process, several locations are proposed during the time spent at Village Square.

But there was nothing very suitable.

There was a warehouse in Bowness – no running water and no electricity. Kathy remembers Nicole on the other end of the phone, having just toured the bare bones of a virtually empty concrete building, crying, saying, “It’s horrible; we can’t do this.”

Another possible location: the Holy Redeemer School in Forest Lawn. Not then used as a school for many years.

Karen remembers spending a long time mapping out the space – “how we were going to check clients in, what the flow was going to be, where was the staff desk going to go, where would the supplies be stored, how would clients move through the space safely.”

Within 24 hours, a petition had come from the community to prevent Alpha House from setting up at the holy redeemer school.

 

FRIDAY. 28 JUNE 2023. 0700 HOURS. CALGARY, AB.

“That was a panicky 24 hours,” remembers Marianne. “I got a call from CEMA saying ‘you won’t be going to the school, but you can’t stay here.’ I called Karen and just said, “We aren’t going to the school, they don’t have a place for us.”

Within that 24 hours, Alpha House toured locations, mapped out the school as a temporary shelter, mapped out and setup what would become the next destination, Max Bell Centre, and then also toured a further location because it was already known Max Bell would be yet another very temporary solution.

“That [at Max Bell] was the best week of the whole flood”

Stampede still happened in 2013, a defiant tag line ‘Come Hell or High Water,’ telling the world a little (or a lot of) water wasn’t going to stop Calgarians from coming together.

“They still did fireworks every night,” Karen reminisces, “clients and staff would go out on to the rocks [in the Max Bell parking lot] and watch the fireworks. It was the most beautiful scene.”

One particularly memorable day of that week at Max Bell, Alpha House staff brought BBQs in on the backs of pickup trucks, a staff member got free food donated from her other place of work, and, overlooking the city, Alpha House had its own Stampede event. “It was probably the best one we ever had,” says Karen.

There were still challenges – one of the larger ones, literally, was the sheer size of Max Bell, finding ways to block off areas and close off different sections, lock doors and use whatever was available to make the space manageable, safety wise, for clients and staff.

 

SATURDAY. 7 JULY 2023. 0700 HOURS. MAX BELL >>> CALGARY SCIENCE CENTRE

“The Science Centre location was an ongoing work in progress,” Jade shares. “It was so big, it had no showers, it was raining inside” (yes, you read that right).

“There was definitely a lot of stress in our daily meetings,” says Karen, “It was a constant question of ‘how are we going to make this work.’ The bathroom was so far away. We had to post 2 staff down the hall just to get clients down the hallway.”

“And the staff bathroom was outside,” Jade jumps in, laughing, “which was fine…except it was stainless steel….and it was late October/November.”

A trailer was used for showers for clients and there were extremely limited laundry services – courtesy of a dry cleaners in….Kensington. “There was a lot of driving back and forth,” says Karen.

But there was no shortage of creativity and staff ingenuity to keep things operating. “Once we got to the science center, we knew we were there for awhile, and we just made it work.”

“The showers worked, the bathrooms worked, Jesus Loves You gave us their kitchen to make food, and we thought this is just what we’re dealing with and we’ll deal with it.”

 

 

OCTOBER 2023. 0700 HOURS. CALGARY ALPHA HOUSE SOCIETY.

When you started going back into the building what was that like?

 “Going back into the empty building was really creepy,” Marianne says immediately. “It was strange,” agrees Karen. “And it was sad cause it was empty, and everything was damaged and after 4 months of chaos and all the other locations, we were going to be starting over again, again”

“Definitely bittersweet,” Jade adds, “it was a lot; we went through a whole lot, it was trying for all of us”

What was the feeling among staff while you were navigating these challenges? Motivated?

 “Very motivated in a lot of ways,” Karen agrees, “everyone was exhausted; everyone was working so much overtime, but we all showed up every. damn. day.”

How long till things felt a bit normal?

“Right away”, Jade says immediately, “we had our systems back; we got very good at putting a shelter together quickly.”

 

JUNE 2023. 1100 HOURS. CALGARY ALPHA HOUSE SOCIETY.

Looking back on the 2013 floods, there is a clear theme that emerges, which most of Calgary would likely agree with. The community stepped up. In so many ways. There was a significant amount of scrambling, and a lot of chaos and confusion, but there were so many helpers and no shortage of people and groups and partners who were ready to step in and support. There are a few that stand out for us:

  • Our own clients making room for other vulnerable individuals, such as our Veteran’s adapting to all our Detox clients taking up residence in their building, sharing supplies and common areas
  • CUPS Calgary didn’t ask anything from us and gave us free rent, office space, keys to their building; they saved our bacon as we didn’t have any long term resources and the damage to the building was substantial. They welcomed us there for 7-months and we were not a small group
  • Community members – donating and volunteering and being so helpful supporting not just Alpha House but all of the groups and community members displaced by the flooding

 

Thank you for walking back in time with us. We are grateful for the way we came together as a community in 2013 and believe it made our teams stronger. Stay dry this month, Calgary!


Why do you volunteer?

Shaundra Bruvall | April 20, 2023

Asking the tough questions of our Volunteers this National Volunteer Week:

Why do you volunteer?

We caught up with one of our kitchen volunteers, Howard, while he was working away on today’s lunch meal.

This is Howard.

Every day, Alpha House serves one meal to shelter clients and three full meals for our detox residential program. It certainly keeps our kitchen staff busy; our incredible volunteers help with the workload. But Howard tells us the only reason he sticks around is because he gets to learn cooking tips from Manny [one of Alpha House’s cooks] – like learning how to make “Manny’s famous braised cabbage”, he jokes, lifting the pot to show us the floating purple shreds. “It’s actually very complex!”

Jokes aside, he says he likes to volunteer at Alpha House “because I like being a part of a place where they’re helping people struggling with addiction, it’s a great cause.” Howard started volunteering with Alpha House through our Thursday afternoon sandwich making group. But he prefers the kitchen work. “I started up in the kitchen because I like to cook……and this is more interesting than making sandwiches,” he says, laughing as we snap a photo of him stirring the close-kept secret braised cabbage dish – highly anticipated in the cafeteria that day.

We love having Howard around in the kitchen and appreciate our awesome kitchen staff even though they were clearly bribing Howard before the interview – surely that’s the only reason he told us: “…..and the kitchen staff, Vik and Manny, are great guys.” 😉

 

Joan

Joan laughs when we ask if we can bug her for an interview while she stands whipping ingredients for some baked goods soon to be served as dessert. “Why not?” she says with another giggle. Howard is egging her on from his place by the stove.

“I just moved to Calgary last July, and I wanted to be giving in service somewhere!” Why Alpha House? we ask. Well, it might have something to do with our awesome staff, our exciting volunteer opportunities, or our world-renowned meals…….or maybe none of the above?  “I live two blocks away,” Joan laughs, “so Alpha House was a great fit.”

But we do have things other than proximity to recommend. “I like that the staff and the space are always warm and friendly, and the kitchen has a good vibe as well.” Good vibes, good food, and a good cause – that is definitely what we are about. And Joan says volunteering with Alpha House has also made her even more comfortable speaking with the clients we serve when she’s out on the street. “I worked in healthcare so I’m very comfortable with lots of people. Volunteering here though now I know so many of the people I see on the street so I can talk to them easily.”

 

Nimira

Nimira promptly said, “no” and then eventually, “oh okay” when we assured her the interview questions were not brain-stumpers. She doesn’t stop her vegetable chopping as we prompt her to tell us why she volunteers. “I volunteer to make a difference, and to fill the gaps that exist for agencies who otherwise wouldn’t have this support. I want to try and make a difference, and help the disadvantaged in my own small way, and to give back to the city.”

Nimira also noted that Alpha House is her favourite place to volunteer (we didn’t prompt her on that one, we promise). “Alpha House is my favourite place to volunteer; I can see the difference I’m making here firsthand. I also get to meet interesting staff and volunteers, and learn more about the work that they do.” Our staff in the kitchen have clearly created a warm, welcoming, and most importantly… fun environment given we have heard from all our volunteers that interacting with staff is a highlight of volunteering for each of them.

She continues to mention one of the ways that she sees her impact in the community. “I see the DOAP Team out on the streets and I like that I’m able to help them by making sandwiches that they can give out to people in need.”

And since we promised this would be our last question, Nimira grants us a little sneak peek into her life away from Alpha House: “In my free time, I like to walk along the river, and read at the public library. Mysteries are my favourite genre, and my favourite authors are Sydney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer.”

 

Alpha House is so pleased to celebrate National Volunteer Week 2023; with the wonderful folks who support our work across all our programs, it makes it easy to celebrate.

Thank you to all our volunteers past and present!


World Social Work Day 2023

Shaundra Bruvall | March 21, 2023

World Social Work Day takes place on 21 March 2023. This year’s theme is ‘Respecting diversity through joint social action,’ recognizing that change happens locally through our diverse leaderful communities. #WSWD2023 provides an opportunity to acknowledge how communities can make powerful actions that lead to inclusive social transformation.

At Alpha House, many of our staff are social workers by trade. We asked them their thoughts on:
“Why Social Work?”
“What do you do to prevent burnout?”
“What is a Social Worker to you?
“What do you love about being a Social Worker?”