Can we end homelessness?

In January, 2008, I sat in a room with a few hundred other Calgarians, most of them involved in some way in the homeless-serving sector, and applauded the launch of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

When asked, “Do you think we can do it?” my answer was  always, “It would be great if we could.” When pressed, I’d temper my enthusiasm with words of caution. “What do we mean when we say we will end it? Do we mean people will never pan handle again? Or fall on hard times with no place to go? Or not need emergency support?

If ending homelessness meant that, the answer was no.

But did I believe in the vision? Absolutely.

It is big and hairy and audacious, and it is vital to hold ourselves accountable to a vision like that if we are to make a difference, if we are to ensure people don’t get trapped in homelessness for years.

“Jack”* was in his late 40s the first time he stepped across the threshold of a shelter. He only stayed a few days before he sorted out the problem that lead him there. Before that, he’d done everything he could to avoid the shelter doors. He’d found a roommate to avoid Calgary’s high rents. When the room mate situation didn’t work out, he’d stayed with friends and when he ran out of friends, he spent a few nights sleeping in a park. He didn’t like that very much so eventually, believing himself to have run out of options, he landed at the shelter door.

The first time was hard. He was scared. Worried about what it meant to have fallen so far down he had no other recourse but to enter the shelter.

The second time, a couple of years later, was easier and by the third time he stayed at the shelter, he had filtered through enough of his fears and reframed the experience to mean, he wasn’t ‘a loser’, which is what he’d told himself the first time. He was simply using the resources available. And anyway, the folks at the shelter were nice and as long as he kept to himself, nobody bothered him. He was still determined to not stay there for long. He was still committed to getting out as soon as he could.

And then, the housing market went crazy. Afford his own place? Not going to happen.

What he thought would be just a few week’s stay became months. Months eased into years and suddenly, without his even noticing, Jack found himself permanently entrenched at the shelter.

“It became comfortable,” he told me once when I worked at the shelter. “Nine years go by pretty fast if you’re not watching.”

I ran into Jack not long ago. I was walking west. He was walking east. When he saw me he stopped to say hello and give me a hug. “I missed you when you left,” he told me.

We chatted for a few moments before I asked him where he was living now. “Are you still at the shelter?” I asked him.

“Nope,” he replied. “I got a place.” And he smiled and stood taller, straighter, prouder.

When Jack turned 65 and his old age benefits started to come in, he decided it was time to make a change. With the help of a senior’s housing agency he found subsidized housing he could afford. He’d been living on his own for a year when I ran into him on the street and was determined he was never going back.

“It used to be I’d work temp jobs, get some cash and blow it all on weekends,” he told me. “Even though I had the same amount of money then as I have now, I didn’t have a lot of hope I’d ever get out of that place ’cause I couldn’t see how I was going to afford it.”

For Jack, as for so many, Calgary’s high cost of living keeps them trapped in believing there is no alternative, there is no place for them to call home other than a shelter. As one man I know once said, “I’ve got a roof over my head and food on the table. I can’t complain about sharing my place with a few hundred other roommates. I can afford free.”

It wasn’t until Jack ‘aged out’ that a path to stability and independence appeared.

We can do better. We must.

Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness is about ensuring people don’t get trapped in using shelter as a long term solution to their housing needs. It’s about ensuring Calgary has the system of care, the necessary affordable housing, and the right supports to ensure homelessness does not become a trap from which the only escape is to age out or die.

We will not be able to open the doors to home without a vision that says, “Yes. Together, we will end homelessness.”

Eight years ago I sat in a room filled with hope and possibility and a belief that together, we can make a difference.

A lot has changed since that day. We’ve learned a great deal. Acquired more information and data to base our decisions upon. We’ve filled in gaps, streamlined processes and gained a better understanding of what it means to be homeless, what it means to end it, and what it takes to do it.

One thing hasn’t changed. My belief that it is vital that each of us hold space for the vision of ending homelessness. Each of us believe in our capacity to make happen.

For Jack’s sake, and for thousands of others, we must.


*Not his real name.



CHF Homecoming Party: Opening doors for The 3200

It was heartfelt, heart-warming and heart engaging. The Calgary Homeless Foundation’s Homecoming Party happened last night and it blew the doors right off their hinges! What a night!

There were tears and laughter and sharing of stories and dreams and hopes for a better future. There were people committed to making a difference. Committed to making sure Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness has the right framework, right resources, right focus and right people to get the job done.

And there was music.

Aaron Pollock is a young singer/songwriter who believes through music, he makes a difference. And he’s right! At a backyard BBQ during the summer, he met CHF CEO Diana Krecsy and together they talked about the power of music to create change, to drive up awareness.

Aaron offered to write a song about homelessness and what it means to be without a home and what happens when you come home.

Diana welcomed his offer and the rest, as they say, is history.

Last night, Aaron Pollock debuted his beautiful ballad, Blue Skies Don’t Break, to an audience of enthusiastic folk who came out to support CHF’s Homecoming Party. He now has over 150 new fans.

Heartfelt and heartbreaking, Blue Skies Don’t Break reminds each of us that no matter how dark the path, the sky above is always there, opening up new vistas, new ways, new possibilities.

This is not the time to give into playing Chicken Little in fear of the sky falling. This is the time to believe in our capacity to end homelessness. This is the time to get busy, stay committed and keep forging ahead in our quest to create homecomings for The 3200.

The 3200. That’s the number of homes we know are needed over the next 2 and a bit years to end homelessness for those who are trapped in long term use of emergency shelters or sleeping rough.

And last night, we took another step forward to opening those doors.

As Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi, the director of the documentary Do You See Me? which was featured at the Homecoming Party, so eloquently said in his comments after the film was shown, we are all one body and when one of us hurts, or one of us falls, or one of us is trapped in homelessness, we all hurt, we all fall, we are all trapped together.

And as everyone said after the film was shown, after MLA Craig Coolahan introduced the video message from our Premier Rachel Notley, after Aaron shared his gift of song and songwriting, and after CEO Diana Krecsy wrapped up the formal part of the evening; we can stop the hurt, we can stop the falls, we can release people from the things that trap them in homelessness, together. Because, together, we will end homelessness.

I am grateful to work with an organization and community that is committed and passionate about creating possibilities for a better quality of life for every Calgarian.

I am grateful for people like Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi and Aaron Pollock who share their talents to make ending homelessness possible. And I am grateful to live in a city that cares. A city that believes anything is possible when we work together.

I am grateful for Lindsey and his team at Civic on Third for creating such a welcoming space for the Homecoming Party and for the sponsors who helped make the evening possible.

And I am really grateful for people like Sharon deBoer, Ben Crews, Alison Duff, Kelsey Shea and Darcy Halber. They made the Homecoming Party possible. And they did it with grace and ease!




Keys to Recovery: Unlocking the Potential

Karen Crowther is compassionate, dedicated, fiercely loyal and determined. She gives her whole heart and being to creating success for her organization, her staff, and the people they serve. And in return, her staff, the people they serve and the communities within which they live and work love her back.

Karen is the Executive Director of Keys to Recovery and as Broadcaster, Performer and last night’s Emcee Jonathan Love said at the Keys to Recovery (Keys) Unlocking the Potential fund-raiser C.C. and I attended, “There’s a lot of love in this room. I can feel it.”

It’s true.

There was Love. And… passion, commitment, a fierce conviction that we can make a difference. A deep understanding of what it takes to do that and a belief that everyone deserves a second, third, even fourth chance to change their lives. No one is hopeless.

Keys fills a unique niche in the homeless serving system of care in Calgary. They provide housing with supports to formerly homeless Calgarians who would otherwise be discharged from successful completion of rehab back to the streets.

It can be a vicious cycle.

Imagine. An individual knows what they are doing is not working for them. They want to get clean and sober and make the scary, yet liberating decision, to go to rehab. After treatment, they are sober, have the tools to continue their sobriety but, the one thing that is the same, is the lack of housing that contributed to their homelessness, and their addiction, in the first place.

Without Keys, they would be returning to an emergency shelter, or the street, with little support to maintain their sobriety and thus, change their lives.

Keys provides that support. They wrap a person in compassionate care, providing both housing and structure to support them in their efforts to retain sobriety and create a new life for themselves and their families.

Gabriel Chen, the keynote speaker last night shared a powerful and inspiring message of what is possible if we imagine a different way.

Gabriel knows. He is a lawyer whose client base is entirely made up of individuals experiencing homelessness.

In the first story Gabriel shared, “Mary” found herself homeless and, feeling defeated, gave into the lure of drugs to numb her from the dark reality of the life she was experiencing. Eventually, she knew she had to do something different, went to Rehab and got a place of her own and was working on her sobriety. But she was on her own, struggling every day to make ends meet and to retain her sobriety. One day, she got picked up on a misdemeanor and when the police ran her name through ‘the system’ it was determined she had some outstanding warrants from when she was using drugs and stole some food and got caught. She was sent to the Remand Centre and attempted to call Gabriel. Except, she was only allowed one call a day and the phone at the Remand does not allow the caller to leave messages. It was a week before she reached Gabriel when he happened to be at his desk. By then, she was terrified of losing her apartment and told Gabriel to plead guilty on her behalf.

She lost her apartment anyway, Gabriel shared and because he was brought into the cycle after she’d already represented herself at her bail hearing, he could not change the course of her journey. She ended up with a criminal record which, upon release, impeded her ability to get a job, an apartment, go back to school or to make any constructive changes in her life.

And the cycle continued.

Imagine instead, asked Gabriel, if Mary was supported throughout her journey. That upon exiting rehab and being immediately housed with supports, she chose to work with her Case Manager to clean up the outstanding warrants before they created more trouble in her life.

Imagine if Gabriel was able to stand before the Court to plead on Mary’s behalf, before the judicial process kicked into high gear with its judgements and criminalization of homelessness and addictions.

Imagine if he could have demonstrated to both the Judge and the Prosecutor that Mary was maintaining her sobriety, was going back to school and had support to change the course of her life.

Imagine that the judiciary were aware of Keys and respected and supported the work they were doing in the community to end homelessness.

Imagine if…

Keys to Recovery makes this possible, Gabriel said.

It’s true.


Keys to Recovery plays a vital role in Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness. Every Calgarian has a role to play — the board members of Keys who were all present last night, the volunteers who helped organize the event like my dear friend Wendy C., and the people who came out to support Keys in their inaugural fund-raiser like Diana Krecsy, President & CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, all made a difference.  You can too. Check out the Plan and see where you fit. (Action Step No. 14 is a great one for every Calgarian) Let’s take action! Together. We can end homelessness in Calgary.