Calgary

COVID prompts sweep of union activity across Calgary homeless shelters, non-profits

Staff at three sites provincewide just organized; six more union drives are in the works in Calgary. Shelter employees say they need help to cope with trauma experienced on the job and hope this gives them a stronger voice.

'The feeling of helplessness contributes to trauma,' says former shelter worker

Dominique Damian-Wallace was formerly a team lead with Alpha House. Here she's pictured in Olympic Plaza, where the organization's outreach team was speaking with community members. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

University students dealing with knife fights, staff expected to finish a shift after finding a client dead, men screaming in the stairwell — workers at some Calgary shelters and non-profits say COVID was just the last straw.

A national survey found rates of post-traumatic stress have been increasing among shelter workers, and employees say a lack of support is driving a wave of union efforts.

Of these, Alpha House staff were the first to organize in Calgary. Farther afield, the Central Alberta Women's Emergency Shelter in Red Deer and WJS in Vegreville also completed union drives.

But Calgary is the hot spot. Union officials say employees from six other organizations contacted them and are now in the process of organizing. That includes three now getting ready to vote and one with ballots being counted.

Dominique Damian-Wallace saw these issues when she worked for 4½ years as a team lead at Alpha House, which runs a shelter, temporary housing and other services for people struggling with homelessness and addictions. 

The 31-year-old supervised shelter clients and helped them find housing. She also instigated the union drive before quitting to go back to school.

She says COVID added to an already stressful, traumatizing environment.

A man lies in the shade of the Alpha House headquarters in this file photo. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"You're dealing with people who are very, very vulnerable, who have the most complex traumas and untreated mental illness. Then you're telling them they have to isolate and yet they're in a shelter that's full of 120 people, or 80 right now," she said.

That's tough for young staff, many of whom are in their 20s and new to Canada.

"People who are trying to survive on the street are using weapons to defend themselves," she said. "But that might be your very first shift and you're seeing someone pull a knife. You have no de-escalation training (yet).

"We have police who drop off clients.... Some people have many complex things going on, and you're facing them as a student just out of university," she said. "The feeling of helplessness contributes to trauma." 

In 2019, Damian-Wallace was spat on, exposed to blood and hit hard enough to be off work with a concussion. But it was a death last fall that she says caused her to finally look for another solution. 

She was working alone on an overnight shift, responsible for the safety of 12 men. When she hadn't heard from one of them in a while, she went to check and found he had overdosed. He was already past help in his room. 

That might be your very first shift and you're seeing someone pull a knife. You have no de-escalation training.- Dominique Damian-Wallace

It was a man she had been working with for some time and the death left her shaken, in tears. But her supervisor expected her to finish the shift. 

"I was visibly and psychologically not OK," she said. "But you don't want to say no because you don't want to look bad." 

Shortly after that, she phoned an organizer with CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

It took time to connect with all the other employees, convincing many to sign cards and trigger a formal vote. The union local was officially created this summer and is going through negotiations to sign the first contract. 

"Workers actually have a critical perspective on how to make non-profits more efficient. I'm hoping people with power … actually listen to workers and have meaningful conversations," said Damian-Wallace.

Alpha House officials declined to comment for this story.

High rates of trauma

Rory Gill, president of CUPE's Alberta division, says his staff saw a surge in interest from employees at various organizations in this sector starting late last year. 

He says the biggest issue they're hearing is that the workers don't feel supported in dangerous work environments.

"There's an expectation in the non-profit sector that you're going to go above and beyond for the people you serve," he said. "People are told time and time again: 'We have tight budgets. We have to fundraise. We don't have time to listen to you.'

"In some cases, there are really egregious violations of people's basic rights as workers.… These are dedicated people who want to help others but they want to be supported themselves."

Alpha House staff member Kelton Coombe prepares a vial of naloxone to be ready in case a client suffers an overdose. (Submitted by Kelton Coombe)

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff studies trauma and shelter workers. She's a University of Calgary professor in social work and author of a groundbreaking 2015 study that found 33 per cent of shelter staff would qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD.

That was higher than commonly found rates for police and firefighters. 

She says she's not surprised at the union drives. Her recent, still unpublished research found rates of trauma increased during COVID to the point where now 47 per cent of all front-line staff have experienced significant trauma.

That's based on surveys with 545 staff in 29 programs across seven Canadian cities, including Calgary and Edmonton.

"Some agencies have tried to become more proactive during COVID," said Waegemakers Schiff. But "there are a lot of places where workers are still expected to (accept the attitude): this is a tough job and deal with it." 

'Always being on edge'

Kelton Coombe has worked or volunteered for more than six non-profits in the past eight years, including as a case worker at Alpha House since January. He says the lack of mental health support, poor health and safety practices and stress of the job is common across the sector.

If you want to picture the stress, he says, imagine being responsible for several people in crisis who are running on the stairs, banging walls and screaming about the apocalypse. Picture that going on for hours, and in the middle of it, you have to grab a needle with naloxone to save someone in overdose.

"You just keep going," he says. "That's the hardest part of the job, always being on edge and not being able to do enough."

Coombe helped organize and is now a volunteer on the five-person negotiating committee for the first collective contract. He says front-line workers in the sector are making in the high $40,000 to low $50,000 range. But that's a sector-wide issue tied to government funding, and other issues drove the union effort.

"Wages in this campaign were never the issue. It actually is the last reason," he said. "It's the health and safety. The abuse. The unhealthy work environment. Those were the concerns for most people at the end of the day."

"I never had the ambition to be part of a union but, the employees, no one is looking out for us," he said.

"Being able to have a say, having a collective voice and being able to make change, it makes a world of difference."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elise Stolte

Journalist

Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary last year. You can reach her at elise.stolte@cbc.ca.

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