Former homeless Calgarian on how he got out of the woods

A former Calgary man who lived on the streets for more than a decade says there is no simple solution when it comes to addressing illegal camps around the city.

Social services staff say it's hard to determine how many homeless camps there are in the city

Duane Gray has been living in an apartment in the Beltline after living on Calgary streets for more than a decade. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Duane Gray has been off the street for nearly a year, and he takes obvious pride in his tidy Beltline apartment.

But he lived rough in the city for more than 12 years  — sleeping on his own in a number of spots around Calgary.

The 53-year-old remembers as he assesses camp spots hidden in the bushes just down the street.

"At 40 below it didn't matter. I always had blankets," he says.

Gray was born in northern Alberta and worked in the oilpatch before moving to Calgary in 2002. He says it wasn't long before he ended up living outdoors.

"I don't like crowds. I didn't like people, plus I was a drunk," he said.

He mostly camped alone, and says he would only access shelters and services because of extreme hunger or cold. He occasionally earned money as a bottle picker and on temporary jobs.

He says he liked the freedom and accepted the risks and hardships. Still, he's glad to be done with it.

"I got my act together. I'm paying bills now, which I wasn't paying before."

Duane Gray who slept in illegal camps in Calgary for 12 years now has a southwest apartment to live in. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Alpha House offers support to homeless

Gray credits an encounter with staff from Alpha House and says that started the process leading to help and housing.

The Calgary Alpha House Society is a non-profit agency that helps people with alcohol and other drug dependencies.

Frontline workers say it's difficult to pinpoint how many homeless camps there are at any given time across the city. While the encampment team at Alpha House says it's currently tracking 20 of them, they suspect there are more.

Jocelyn Court has worked with the team for two years and says they'll offer assistance ranging from blankets to a way off the street.

"We try to get them hooked up with resources that can help get them back into housing if that's what they want," she said.

City officials have said they've noticed an increase in camps along downtown riverbanks and have received more than 800 complaints about illegal encampments this year. That's up from 500 complaints in 2014.

Social services staff say they're seeing campers with substance abuse problems and mental health issues as well as others who simply don't want to stay in homeless shelters.

 No simple solution to illegal camps

This kind of gave me a kick in the rear … But never say never because you never know what tomorrow's going to bring.-Duane Gray 

Gray says there are a lot of reasons people are sleeping in the woods around Calgary, and that there is no quick fix for a problem that has been around for years.

"We take this one off the street and the next one will be right there," he said. "It's just the way it is for a lot of people."

Still, he says his focus now is to get job training and get back to work. And he's mindful that homelessness in a big city can sometimes be just one missed paycheque away.

"I hope I'm not camping again. This kind of gave me a kick in the rear … But never say never because you never know what tomorrow's going to bring."