I haven't written in a while now. But tonight I discovered something truly incredible within this city I love.
First, let me commend my Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra and his team for getting an invitation out to me through his Ward 9 Newsletters. If you live in Ward 9 in Calgary, I encourage you to sign up for it. I find it interesting, informative, and worthwhile to receive. You can get on the list at https://www.gccarra.ca/contact-us/ Other wards have similar lists, go find yours.
Second, if you do NOT live in Calgary please don't stop reading. This is a really interesting approach to homelessness and encampments and there is a lot here worth sharing across Canada and around the world.
This story starts two years ago when my dog adopted me. Being the perfect dog that she is, she insists that I walk twice a day for a total time of no less than 60 minutes. As caring as she is, she is most insistent that I also spend a little time on my own in an off-leash environment so she can get her personal time sniffing about and doing her business.
This arrangement works great, we walk most nights in the off-leash area just south of my home along the irrigation canal in a beautiful grassy area with scrub brush and a few trees. Also a beautiful and convenient area for an illegal encampment. It's somewhat secluded, but still has access to water, a short distance to services which can be found downtown or in the more local area. Now, encampments are a big problem all over the city and are a notoriously hard problem to solve.
The wrong answer has been out there for years: Go arrest the people, ticket them, take away their stuff, run them out of the neighbourhood so it becomes someone else's problem a couple miles down the road, meanwhile someone else from a couple miles up the road moves into the newly vacated spot and the cycle repeats itself.
So at some point last year, I came across a newly set up encampment. I didn't like that it was there, but at least it was better than being under the tree in my front yard. And, quite frankly, it was a nice looking set up that looked more like a camp site than a squatters camp. I certainly didn't want to get them in shit and get their stuff confiscated, so I walked on. A week or so later, I noticed that things were looking a little more ramshackle and blown about. "I hope someone's okay," I thought, "Someone needs to tidy that place up or they're going to catch Hell" while I kept walking. Three weeks or so in, the place began to take on that unkempt and abandoned look. It was now time to call. I called 3-1-1 (Calgary City Services phone line) and reported an abandoned camp. It wasn't dangerous, it wasn't an emergency, at best is was a bunch of junk left behind and at worst there was someone hurt or dead down there, so 3-1-1 was the right number to call.
A day or two later, I got a call from Jody. He started by asking me questions I wasn't quite expecting. Now, I don't remember the exact conversation, but it went something like:
"Can you see anyone there?"
"No, I think it's an abandoned site."
"Have you seen someone coming back and forth lately?"
"No, it looks like it's falling down."
"How long has it been there?"
"About three or four weeks."
"THREE OR FOUR WEEKS? And you're just calling now?"
"It didn't look like a problem until recently."
I could feel his exasperation through the phone. I didn't know why. So when I got the email a couple weeks ago from Councillor Carra, I put it in my calendar and made a point to attend to find out what I should have done.
Things I learned:
The very first thing I learned was that I'd be terrible at estimating how many "rough sleepers" (people who don't have proper shelter overnight) there are in Calgary. In a city of roughly 1.4 million people, I would have guessed there would be about 1000 to 2000 people camping out every night. Maybe more in the summer, less in the winter. I was way wrong, it's more like 120. And most of them are nice people with some big problems, although there are definitely criminals and drug addicts we don't want in our neighbourhoods, too.
The second thing that shocked me was that Calgary has about 60% of the overall homeless population in Alberta. Probably in part due to our climate and having the Trans-Canada Highway run east-west through the city. It did not surprise me to hear that homelessness is a problem throughout all parts of Calgary (and Alberta, and Canada, and North America, and... well, you get it.)
The third thing that truly surprised me is that all of those numbers are uncertain. We just don't track the data well. Previously in Calgary, an encampment may be called "road side debris" when it fell under the Roads department, or a "pathway disturbance" on the pathway system, or just plain trespassing when it was on private property.
Calgary's new pilot project is building from a lot of the work that's been done over the past 8 or so years, and they've rolled it up into the Joint Encampment Team. Their web page reads as so sterile compared with the enthusiasm I feel about it. (It's actually not that bad, I'm just really excited about it and thinks it needs more trumpets.)
First off, that Jody I spoke to earlier: He is Jody St. Pierre and he is flat out incredible. He is the person who has been working at finding solutions for the past 8 or so years and I am incredibly proud to have met him. Together with his partner Melanie Thomas (I hope I got that right, I didn't meet her tonight) they are trying hard not to simply kick the can down the road into the next neighbourhood. I found a nice write up on them from the Calgary Homeless Foundation's website. They have been on the front line, know how to interact with people, try to set up contacts and supports and get people out of encampments and back into their lives. Life's real capeless heros.
The approach is basic.
Respond to an encampment complaint.
Try to provide immediate help for the person.
Try to find alignments for the person's needs and an agency that provides support services.
Encourage the person to follow up with the services they need.
Follow up as well as possible to keep the person moving forward.
In the meantime, this program is helping bring a lot of other pieces in the puzzle together, too. Agencies have been always been meeting to help each other out, but this is another specific means to find those places where all the organizations can find synergies. The Joint Encampment Team is also focusing on data collection and serves as a centralized place to collect meaningful data which will be massively helpful with determining the true size of the problem and how we should set our priorities. Knowing where encampments are helps to follow up and ensure people are actually getting the services they need. We can track problem sites and do a better job remediating them. When the can does get kicked down the road to the next neighbourhood, the JET team can understand better who is just playing for time and who is serious about getting help and getting on with their lives.
My fears of getting someone in shit - now I think they're pretty much unfounded today in Calgary. We do have support for people in this city. Now it's not enough, but it's a start. The focus is less on handing out tickets then taking away their stuff and much more on resolving the homelessness. Not that we don't have problems with drugs and crime and people who are going to get themselves in shit on their own. But quite simply the first step is to try to help first. "We can't enforce our way out of this problem," said Jody. He's absolutely correct.
Three things to do:
Remember when I said I called Jody and he sounded frustrated that I called so late? I could have handled it so much better had I only known.
1) When you discover an encampment in Calgary, the very first thing you should do is to call 3-1-1 and report it. When you make your report, it is more helpful if you can give GPS coordinates to the exact site. (The 3-1-1 app will automatically do this for you!) Encampments should be called in to 3-1-1 unless a crime is in progress (then call 9-1-1). Simple, central, and helpful to everyone.
2) Record the serial number from your bikes, mark your property, and should it be stolen, report it. If my bike got stolen and chopped up, I may not want to get the parts back. However it gives the police more options when they can show someone has property which is known to be stolen from you. It may not be much, but it may give more tools to the good guys so they can get help for the bad ones.
3) Donate directly to the agencies that help people instead of giving money to panhandlers. It's a big problem to resolve, get the resources into the hands that make a difference. Yes, I'm overdue to sending a donation to the Mustard Seed or the DI, but find someone who you can support and actually donate to help out if you can. Everything helps.
Finally, at the end of the night I spoke to Jody and said I was sorry I called too late and I promised to do better next time. I told him I'd write a blog tonight and asked if there was anything particular he'd like me to say.
"Mention that it's just junk. It doesn't hurt anyone if it's left alone. Please be patient and we'll get it cleaned up properly as soon as we can."