A Calgary agency is using the escape room craze to connect with Indigenous youth in an attempt to help them get off the streets or avoid homelessness.

The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY) is setting up three different interconnected escape rooms on the main floor of the downtown library as part of a free program called Unlocking Homelessness.

For anyone not familiar with the escape room trend, it works like this: Teams are locked inside a room and given a series of interactive or brain-teasing puzzles to solve in order to make their escape. 

LeeAnne Ireland

LeeAnne Ireland came up with the idea of using escape rooms to educate homeless youth about the services available to them in Calgary. (CBC)

LeeAnne Ireland, executive director of USAY, designed the rooms, including the themes and all of the props. 

She told the Calgary Eyeopener each escape room was created to teach young people about events and behaviours that can lead to homelessness and then show them services available in Calgary that can help prevent a life on the streets.

Following the steps

Each room has a different theme. The party room is filled with props related to drug and alcohol addictions; the alley room, accessed by climbing through a cabinet, deals with death and grief; the nice house symbolizes success and explains how to maintain a happy life.

"We've built in all these metaphors — follow the light, follow the positivity.... We have this whole theme about layers, so it's all about unlocking different layers in your life and overcoming one step, then the next step, and the next step," said Ireland.

When participants make it through, the hope is they'll come away with solid knowledge and communications skills about seeking help if they get into trouble.

Unlocking homelessness escape room

Students figure out the clues in an escape room, used as part of a project to help homeless indigenous youth. (CBC)

"The whole idea is to get them to ask for help, learn about a service available to them and reach out and get that awareness," said Ireland. 

Reaching out

The agency is using social media to reach out to young people about the program, while the CBE is bringing in students on field trips. 

Though Indigenous youth are the focus of the project, Ireland says the program is universal and anyone will benefit from it.

"Obviously, the resources can be accessed by non-aboriginals … but we're definitely targeting indigenous youth … they're very vulnerable in terms of experiencing homelessness," she said.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener