Lived experience of homelessness inspires Calgary outreach organization

A Calgary not-for-profit group is helping connect people who are homeless with food and other support services. Founder Chaz Smith started the organization after a support worker showed him the same kind of compassion he now aspires to share with others who are living on the streets.

BeTheChangeYYC connects people with support services and supplies

Chaz Smith started BeTheChangeYYC after a support worker refused to give up on him when he was homeless as a teenager. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

On a warmer than usual night in early January, a man stands on top of Reconciliation Bridge in downtown Calgary.

Water rescue teams wait beside the river while firefighters set up a ladder. Two police officers are trying to speak with the man above. 

He refuses to come down as long as they're there. 

Chaz Smith is familiar with challenging scenarios like this. He's the founder and CEO of BeTheChangeYYC, a street outreach group that connects people with housing programs and shelters, and also hands out food and supplies. 

He walks onto the closed bridge and identifies himself before he starts speaking with the man and asks what would get him to climb down. 

"I've said what I need. Make them go!" 

Smith turns to the officers and relays the message. 

"He wants you guys to go and then he'll come down." 

For several minutes, Smith is alone on the bridge speaking to the man pacing on the steel bars above. Members of the Calgary Police Service and Calgary Fire Department wait across the intersection and down the block. 

After BeTheChangeYYC volunteers deliver a bagged lunch, along with a requested cigarette, the man climbs down. 

Smith helped first responders trying to get a man standing on top of Reconciliation Bridge to climb down. He did it by talking to him and bringing him a sandwich and a smoke. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

The task that emergency responders were called to tackle was ultimately accomplished by Smith and a few members of his team with a conversation, a sandwich and a smoke. 

Following the tense scenario, wagons filled with supplies are picked up and the team starts the evening's outreach shift. Throughout the night, they engage with people experiencing homelessness across downtown, always making sure to ask where they're staying.

Lived experience 

Smith has spent years building relationships with the community and is approached by some people with familiarity.

His ability to connect isn't just based on his sense of empathy. At the age of 15, Smith himself experienced homelessness. 

When police took Smith to a shelter for the first time, they were helping him leave a difficult family life. 

"There were a lot of different aspects to it, a lot of things going on that I wouldn't wish on any child," Smith recalled. 

He says he tried but failed to keep up with school. He was able to get a job but found that working while homeless brought with it other challenges. 

Meal schedules at shelters wouldn't always align with his scheduled shifts. 

"I know many days where I went without eating, and I remember eventually you get so hungry that the pain actually just goes away. It's quite miraculous how the body can do that," said Smith. 

He blames his tumultuous upbringing for his battles with depression and anxiety and says his poor mental health was exacerbated by the feeling that no one cared about him. 

"I learned to hate myself, and I didn't know who I was or what purpose I had. I just felt like a waste." 

Ending the cycle 

Change came in the form of one particular support worker who refused to give up on him. Smith says she took time to make him feel cared for and influenced him to make better decisions. 

"I was confused, I was like, 'Why does she care so much? I don't even care that much.' And then it made me think, 'Maybe I am worth caring about. Maybe there is something here.'" 

Smith found housing through the Infinity Project, which he says set him up for more success. He stopped self-medicating with drugs and went back to school. 

Members of BeTheChangeYYC deliver food and supplies, and connect people with housing programs and shelters during their outreach walks. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

After three years of living in shelters, Smith was able to get housing in 2008. 

More than a decade later, he and the volunteers at BeTheChangeYYC walk the same streets on outreach shifts. 

Smith says the goal of the program, which became a registered not-for-profit in 2018, is to inspire the kind of realization that he had with his support worker. 

"When you feel so disassociated from everyone around you, when you feel invisible already, having a person treat you in a dignified way, on your terms, reminding you that you do exist, I think that's powerful," he said.

Being the change 

BeTheChangeYYC is made up of paramedics, students in social work and other volunteers whom Smith calls the heart of the organization. 

Bill Zheng joined the group after trying outreach walks with friends.

The high school student manages the group's social media channels in addition to doing outreach shifts. He says the majority of people they meet welcome their presence. 

"I wanted to join a larger organization that is able to provide more, so BeTheChangeYYC is perfect for that," said Zheng. "It's very friendly, so I'm really loving that environment that we're creating here." 

For Austin Deck, he says being a nursing student caused him to think differently about contributing to his community.

"That's really what BeTheChangeYYC is about, is building community and building capacity for community."

Austin Deck is a nursing student who volunteers with BeTheChangeYYC. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

Deck also credits Smith's passion for inspiring him to volunteer. 

"His ability to meet people where they're at and show their uniqueness and look into them and what they bring to the table is something that I really recognize," said Deck. 

One of the founding members of the organization, Kristen Baranieski, met Smith when they were both homeless as teenagers.

She says that when they were 16, they would walk through downtown trying to help others get the services they needed. 

"That was something that we were lacking when we were youth, so we definitely felt the need to continue on that venture," said Baranieski. 

BeTheChangeYYC now serves hundreds of people each week. Smith says he wants people who see someone experiencing homelessness to think of him and know that the situation can be temporary. 

"Everyone has so much potential, and I can only imagine if people had given up on me, so many things wouldn't have happened."