Homeless Calgarians connect with downtown dwellers in unique program

A unique program run by the city and the Calgary Drop-In Centre aims to connect people living and working downtown with members of the vulnerable population inhabiting the same space.

More than 2,000 people have taken part since Engaging Vulnerable People started nearly 2 years ago

Engaging Vulnerable People

5 years ago
The Calgary Drop-In Centre is running a unique program called Engaging Vulnerable People. 0:52

A unique program from the city and Calgary Drop-In Centre (DI) aims to connect those living and working downtown with members of the vulnerable population inhabiting the same space.

More than 2,000 people have gone through the Engaging Vulnerable People program since it was started nearly two years ago, including students in the nursing, social work and counselling fields, along with police recruits, EMTs and office workers.

"This is content that really meets the needs of anyone who is curious about learning something about the homeless population," said Samantha Urias, a training specialist at the DI.

"How do we A, build positive relationships, or B, provide safety and intervention strategies?"

More than half of the city's homeless population — pegged at 3,533 in a recent count — have jobs, but can't afford rent.

On top of that, Urias said up to 58,000 Calgary households consider themselves to be one paycheque or crisis away from homelessness.

"We probably know somebody who is very, very close to experiencing it," she said.

Samantha Urias has taken more than 2,000 through the Engaging Vulnerable People program at the Calgary Drop In Centre. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

"But we don't often draw those connections. It's not often you hear somebody say, 'I've paid my rent, I've paid my bills, I have zero dollars in my account, and I have enough to eat today.'"

Not everyone who uses the DI is homeless. Up to 20,000 people turn to the centre to access food, outreach or counselling services each year.

"They're here for a meal or they're here for companionship because maybe they're a senior, they're alone and they need that interaction," said Urias.

In Calgary, 80 per cent of the homeless population is male and 20 per cent is female, with 71 per cent of homeless women saying they have experienced domestic violence.

Heather Bryck has worked downtown for 14 years and said she took the course because she found she was often nervous walking past disadvantaged people.

Participants in the Engaging Vulnerable People program. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

"A lot of times people hang out in groups and you're a single woman walking in the downtown core," she said.

"You make the assumption this is just how somebody ended up. You don't think, 'How did they end up here?' They're just homeless and living on the street. I think it will teach me to be less ignorant, more understanding of others, more able to see somebody's situation."

Bryck called the course an emotional but eyeopening experience.

"I saw a gentleman who looked a lot like my oldest child and he was sleeping on the floor," she said. "That's kind of sad."

With files from Jennifer Lee and Evelyne Asselin