Calgary Police Officer Devon Ouellette takes an exit off of Calgary’s Blackfoot Trail and parks near some train tracks. The mid afternoon sky clouds over as snowflakes drift silently to the ground; the chilly wind puts the temperature at -5 C – not cold enough for the snow to stay for long.
On our side of the tracks, industrial buildings fill the landscape; on the other side, there is nothing but overgrown brown grass and birch trees covered in dead leaves. Ouellette explains that this is where we will find a homeless camp where rough sleepers live. We cross the tracks, leaving the city behind to enter the urban wilderness.
Have you ever wondered how homeless Calgarians survive the harsh winter season? When a cold front strikes – rapidly and unpredictably – where or who do they turn to for help?
As a Vulnerable Persons Unit (VPU) officer, Ouellette is responsible for any legal conflicts within The SORCe (Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre), a central hub of Calgary’s homeless shelters and services which are located across from Calgary’s City Hall. Most of the people Ouellette encounters are homeless or in a transitional housing program.
“I provide the legal services, or legal side of things there,” said Ouellette, “So I process [people who come to The SORCe], but what I’m able to do for them is advocate on their behalf and when I speak to the hearing officer or the justice that releases them on their warrants I can really paint a picture of what their life is like and what systems they’re connected to as far as addictions, as far as mental health.”
Homeless people may have legal warrants due to trespassing, loitering or public indecency. Ouellette removes any unnecessary warrants and finds strategies that could really help the person in need.
For years, homeless Calgarians have roughed the cold streets and deserted foliage of Calgary’s broad landscape by staying in shelters and using the food bank. What many Calgarians don’t know is the resiliency it takes to live without a home in a chilly prairie city every night during the winter.
Homeless Calgarians who sleep outside of shelters have various methods of survival to keep themselves warm throughout the long Canadian winters. From setting up outdoor camps to a regimented shelter lifestyle, those without homes can find new opportunities through assisted housing programs.
Calgarians have a wealth of resources many Canadians don’t, such as harm reduction programs that distribute clean needles and food hampers, transitional housing services and a VPU.
Despite the cold, Ouellette said homeless Calgarians are less likely to die from freezing to death than by drug overdose or violence. According to a 2014 news report by the Calgary Herald, the leading causes of homeless death were substance abuse, violence and suicide.
Ouellette has been working with the Calgary Police Service (CPS) for seven and a half years. After working downtown and interacting with the homeless population for the first time, he wanted a position with the VPU.
“[VPU] has been around for ten years and it’s kind of CPS’ stake in kind of understanding homelessness and addictions and how we can adapt and change our policies and be part of the solution,” said Ouellette.
Ex-chief Rick Hanson created the VPU because he recognized that the CPS could not arrest its way out of addictions and homelessness. Ouellette often helps people on a regular basis, not just getting rid of their warrants, but also picking up someone on the street when it’s -25 C outside and letting them warm up in his car.
“Our job is to protect people at the very basic level of what that means….If somebody is cold we should help them warm up. If somebody is hurt we should help them get better, that’s what we do – I mean police work is not what you see in the movies. It’s not just chasing drug cartel leaders and all that kind of stuff, it’s very much social work and helping the community,” said Ouellette.
He has been with the VPU for three and a half years as of January, 2018.
Throughout a five-hour ride-along interview, Ouellette explains that in order to really learn about homelessness in Calgary, we must first start from the ground up. In this case, literally, as we crossed the train tracks and embarked up the grassy hillside before us.
Two metres onto the beaten path through the trees, we encounter an abandoned bicycle with an attached sac, perfect for collecting bottles. Cinder blocks, assorted garbage and odd objects decorate the path to the woods.
"So this is going to be one of our typical camps, you're going to find bicycles, or there's going to be a lot of garbage 'cause there's no garbage pick-up in the camps typically. Some people that camp have mental health disorders so they horde. Here we have some copper wire, which is a way to make some money – they strip the copper. You're going to find a little bit of everything in here. Someone obviously went through a dumpster and found some stuff." Ouellette continued to explain the meaning and purpose behind the objects found near the path in the woods, like a guide at a museum.
Soon we reach a clearing where the most impressive castle of assorted items stood.
"Some of these camps get quite elaborate, they have propane tanks and heat and these paths here are all from people making camps, in the summertime this would be thick brush, so it's very hidden. Cinder blocks were brought up here mostly to make stoves. Luggage-," Ouellette trails off as the encampment comes into view, "Hello! Calgary Police! Hello!"
No one answered – the camp was free for us to observe.
The land sloped inward, creating a convenient divot in the soil, surrounded by trees that were decorated with tarps that formed a sort of roof; clothes hung on a line that would constitute as a closet and one lone CD hooked onto a snubbed branch. On the ground, the camp was surrounded by a suitcase, blankets, garbage, food and hiding in the background, an oddly placed, tall golden coat hanger.
Homeless people are not the lazy, non-working stereotype some people believe them to be. They may not have a set schedule but they wake up, get up and start their day by finding ways to survive until the next, which is probably why no one was present at the camp.
They may be picking bottles for money, finding interesting items abandoned in the trash, or taking advantage of the services provided by the Food Bank for a food hamper, warm coats from Project Warmth or they might just be looking for narcotics to use. Ouellette briefly searches the camp for used needles.
“[Starting] at the camp, we connect them with resources through the dope team, encampment team, police, bylaw,” said Ouellette, who directs the people he encounters at outdoor homeless camps to head to the SORCe, adding that sometimes he will take them himself
“And then [once they arrive at the SORCe] they get assessed. They get whatever their immediate needs are met, whether it’s food, safe needles, you name it, emergency mental health care.”
How The SORCe helps Calgarians
Located across from city hall, The SORCe is a hub for homeless or financially struggling Calgarians that require specific services.
Ouellette explained that those who come to The SORCe can ask for help from any service located there. So if a person needs food, they can ask for a hamper from the Food Bank. If they need a warm jacket to fight the cold, they can ask for one through Project Warmth.
Instead of having to tell someone homeless to try and head to every service centre in the city that applies to them, it is much easier for people to go to one spot, such as the SORCe, and find all the help they need right there. Sometimes Ouellette even drives people to the SORCe so they can find help right away.
“The SORCe takes care of them while they’re waiting for a housing agency to basically pick their number, and then they get transitioned into housing,” said Ouellette, once a person receives housing they are monitored to make sure their needs are met.
Not all clients are ready to go into housing and may become evicted due to a drug relapse or behavioural conflict; however, clients are kept off the street as much as possible by transitioning them into a different program.
“Transfers take priority over new [people] on the list for the reason that we now have given somebody a home. If that home now becomes inappropriate for them, we’re not gonna kick ‘em back on the street. We’re gonna do what we can to transition them to something that’s gonna work.”
After leaving the hillside home behind, Ouellette drove to us to Abbeydale, a transitional housing service where the homeless can find a place to live and, if necessary, receive care for addictions and mental health disorders. Some people who are placed into transitional housing may be able to move out later to their own apartment after securing a job.
Clifford Rideout, a man who spent four years homeless, explained how he survived living outside during the winter up until his move to a transitional housing service.
“When I first came to Calgary, I hitchhiked from [British Columbia]...and ended up here, some guy picked me up and dropped me down in the middle of Calgary...didn’t know where the heck I was and I’ve been here ever since,” said Rideout.
Before Rideout received the help he needed, he was sleeping outside. Rideout said he preferred not to stay in a shelter.
“[For] four years, I lived in the alleys, when I first came here. I went to the [Drop-In] centre when it was a cold, cold night. Caught some kind of a bug,” said Rideout, who recounts why he slept outside for so long.
“I know what a bed bug is, I’ve seen ‘em before but this was so small, I used to wake up in the morning and I’d be itching like crazy. So that’s when I decided I would stay in the alleys, I didn’t give a darn about the cold.”
Rideout explained how he battled the cold, “I would find office ducts downtown, like big office buildings, they got the big ducts. So you find a good spot and you can stay warm right there.”
“I got my own certain spots, I’m not gonna tell you where they are,” said Rideout, chuckling a little.
“What I used to do when I was in the alleys, people used to save me their empties (recyclable bottles), hide ‘em in spots where no other pickers could get ‘em. And I knew what time these people were going to work, so I would, in the winter time especially, I would clean up their cars with snow, scrape their windshields,” said Rideout. “That’s how I would appreciate what they were doing for me.”
“I had a cart, most of the homeless people have a cart to shove around. I had all my stuff in there, my empties and stuff,” said Rideout, a necessary item for bottle picking.
“I had no income, no Alberta Works (welfare), nothing, I had nothing except for these people who helped me out, and bins, [bottle] picking and stuff like that. That’s how I made my living.”
Rideout received help a couple of months after filing a request at The SORCe for a place to stay.
“[An employee from The SORCe] went right downtown, right under the alley and found me.”
“Now I’m here, I’m blessed. I love this place,” said Rideout, now that he has a place to stay at Abbeydale. However, Rideout knows not everyone would appreciate Abbeydale’s services.
“I would love for everybody to be off the streets, but some people don’t wanna be in a home like this, they love to stay homeless. I know a few people downtown still that just love being homeless.”
After spending years avoiding shelters, Rideout explains why many homeless people prefer to stay outside.
“To choose to stay away from the shelter system is because you have restrictions. When you’re on the street, no restrictions. You’re on your own, you do what you want. That’s what I liked about it too,” Rideout recalled.
“I did what I wanted to, I could get up when I wanted to, go to bed when I wanted to, drink when I wanted to – I don’t do drugs, well I consider alcohol a drug but that’s what I used to do.”
I said goodbye to Rideout and hopped back into Ouellette’s Charger. He starts up the car and we journey back to the district one Calgary Police Service centre. Once I part ways with Ouellette I sit back in my car as the snow keeps falling, then melting on my windshield.
Real people, real cold
Seeking more information on how Calgarians could navigate the concrete landscape for food and warmth, I walked down 1st Street SW to a popular panhandling spot and found Steven Cracknell and his brother Dan, (who did not wish to be interviewed).
Bracing the -17 C weather (-23 C with windchill), Cracknell stood under a bridge with several layers of clothing to keep him warm and a couple of milk crates to rest on.
Originally an addictions counsellor from Ottawa, Cracknell moved to Alberta after facing personal hardships. He settled in Calgary, but later lost his job after succumbing to alcoholism.
Cracknell spent many nights on the streets since then. I asked him what it was like to sleep outside.
“It sucks. It’s kind of cold. Calgary's a good place though, you never starve – there’s always someplace you go to eat and you can go to the shelters at night...Calgary takes care of people who are stuck in a bad jam,” said Cracknell, adding that he still prefers to sleep outdoors despite his appreciation for the services they have.
“I'd much rather [stay outside] because it’s nuts in the shelters, it's crazy.... You got guys whacked out on drugs, you got drunks. I’m a quiet pass-out drunk ... I don't usually get in fights. I was in there one time, a guy got stabbed. A guy came in, slashed ‘em right across the face. Blood everywhere,” said Cracknell, who uses the shelter services primarily for food and warmth, not company.
Outside, Cracknell experiences the freedoms Rideout talked about.
“I can drink. I can smoke cigarettes. Whereas at Alpha, you can’t smoke and if you leave you have to stay out for two hours.”
Cracknell shared his secret to withstanding the cold, “Get really drunk,” he laughed, “But when you wake in the morning, it is cold. You’re frozen. Your feet, your hands, you’re frozen.”
He was lucky he never got frostbite.
Calgarians sleeping outside in the cold use several kinds of materials to stay warm, including cardboard and sometimes blankets.
“A young girl spent her whole year’s allowance buying sleeping bags...she's seven/eight years old, gets out of the truck, brought me a sleeping bag, a brand new sleeping bag….it was cool, it was really cool.”
Of all the materials, cardboard stuck out to me. Why is cardboard the best choice?
“It’s an insulator, keeps you warm,” Cracknell slept in a recycling bin because of how well it maintained his body heat. Little did he know, the garbage truck had arrived to make its rounds the next morning.
“I got halfway up the garbage truck and I tried to scramble my way out. Poor driver, he was mad. He was upset, he goes, ‘I could’ve killed you!’ I was like, 'Oh you didn’t know!’ but he was still mad.”
“There's a few places, if you know where to go, there’s vents that have heat...Not a lot, but if it's -30 it helps a lot,” Cracknell said that some buildings are starting to catch on and are getting tired of the garbage left behind.
“A lot of guys leave crap behind, like garbage and litter and they don’t throw their cardboard away… They just don’t respect the fact that they have a warm place to go,” Cracknell and his brother Dan try to help clean up the messes so that they can continue to sleep there in peace.
Unlike Rideout, Cracknell panhandles as his main source of income.
“I used to bottle pick... you gotta walk miles, like six or seven hours for, sometimes for only ten or fifteen dollars,” However Cracknell said the money can be good occasionally. During Christmas he once made around 500 dollars.
Feeling left with more questions about the shelter system in Calgary, I contacted the Client Action Committee (CAC), a committee run by the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF), an organization Ouellette works with.
The CAC committee is primarily made up of members who have experienced homelessness or are currently homeless. The committee is run by volunteers.
“Go stand for a bus. Stand there for 10 hours in the winter. That would give you a bit of an understanding. ” said Randy Pages, a CAC member and Calgary Can board member, who has spent several nights sleeping on the streets during the winter.
“You got your little tent, you got your sleeping bag, you got your piece of cardboard on the ground as an insulator, and it sometimes still wasn’t enough,” explained Pages, he not only found a way to sleep on the street, but ways he could find warmth throughout the night.
“It’s tough if you don’t have the proper clothing, the proper footwear, proper this, proper that, I’ve known an individual who lost all ten toes,” explained Pages, adding that there was also drugs and alcohol associated with the injury, “That’s the kind of thing that happens to people who try to compensate for the cold by drinking alcohol, doing drugs – all it does is just dulls your mind, you don’t feel it but in reality you’re worse off than you normally are.”
“I’ve gone and slept in ATM room areas, where you go in, so that little area there because it’s warm, I’ve lied in there and I’ve never had to be escorted out like somebody else was, but I’ve done that, slept in stairwells, I’ve walked into the hospital, took an elevator up to the third/fourth floor and just go sit in the washrooms up there because they don’t really check up there,” said Pages.
Nigel Kirk, a CAC member present in the boardroom who currently lives in transitional housing, explained that some people, like Pages, prefer not to stay in shelters.
Shelters don’t always live up to great standards for everyone using the services, “Think of it like a monopoly. When you have a scarcity of resources and an abundance of people who want it, the people who have the resources can basically control everything,” explained Kirk, “Shelters get away with a lot of this stuff because they are absolutely necessary.”
Kirk knows some people who just refuse to stay in the shelters, “Some of it is because the rules in shelters [are]...geared towards controlling a population.”
“There are some shelters out there that are actually really good and they literally are there for the purpose of helping people and keeping them safe,” said Kirk. Although the service in shelters might not always be the best quality, they are necessary for Calgarians to use.
“If it wasn’t for [the shelters] I wouldn’t be here,” said Pages.
The CAC initially formed to help advise the CHF on its ten-year plan to end homelessness. They would help refresh the proposed strategy and point out methods that were or were not working.
The CAC was later approached by the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC), where they were given money to conduct research on the homeless community because the AHRC weren’t receiving any complaints from the homeless.
“We did some research, we found out that one of the reasons why members of the homeless community aren’t complaining is because it’s perfectly ok to discriminate against someone who’s homeless,” said Kirk.
Kirk explains that the discrimination didn’t have to be based on someone’s racial background, gender or sexual orientation; based off that, Kirk helped with the development of the Homeless Charter of Rights.
Michael Grant, a social worker from the CHF, knows the impact the CAC committee has by having members who were homeless or currently homeless. It’s an important step forward towards understanding the real challenges homeless people face.
“I feel like the Calgary Homeless Foundation and Client Action Committee are far ahead of the group. I think it’s one of the most important things any agency can do is consult people who’ve been there, it just makes sense,” said Grant.
Since the discrimination of homeless people is so common in public places, it’s no wonder some Calgarians may be kept on the streets with few places to turn to; however, people do find help through the shelter system.
In order to find out what it’s like to face discrimination on the streets and a bit about how shelters provide help for Calgary’s homeless, I set out near the downtown public library to find someone to talk to. Sitting across from the library on a street corner near a Tim Hortons, a woman was bundled up in winter clothing near a suitcase. She held a cardboard sign in her hands, explaining how she needed money to help her travel back home to B.C.
After giving her a Tim’s coffee that she held between her gloved hands as a source of warmth, she began to tell her story.
“When I first got to Calgary I was pretty broken and weak and very much addicted to drugs, I’ve been battling addiction for the last two years which has led me to the streets,” said Jenna Bentlage.
As a former addict, she had faced a lot of discrimination through the shelter system and wishes the shelters would “make sure that there are certain rules and guidelines to follow.”
“So that a woman like me doesn't sit outside the gates crying my eyes out because I don't feel secure enough because there's so much judgment.”
However, Bentlage is still grateful towards the help she received in the shelters: “I mean it's a blessing really. The shelters are a blessing.”
For Bentlage, the shelters had provided a space for her to keep warm and fed when she had nowhere else to turn.
“It's been one of the best experiences of my life being here in Calgary because it’s matured me really fast and I've gone through lots of trials being here and I just realized how important it is to just stay true to yourself.”
It was a very positive insight from Bentlage, whose world I knew superficially during a 10-minute conversation.
Bentlage finished talking before I could ask the remainder of my questions and explained that she needed to keep raising money for her trip home. Not wanting to disturb her efforts, I walked away from the busy street corner. I saw her move down the street a little further and she placed her suitcase beside her, sign in hand.
- By Sarah Kirk