North·Analysis

Here's how one sobering centre works with its neighbours, community

Yellowknife's sobering centre is looking to improve its relationship with its neighbours. CBC spoke with a more established centre in Calgary on how they keep the peace in their neighbourhood.

'It's about building relationships,' says Calgary Alpha House Society's executive director.

Calgary's Alpha House has been open since 1981. (Google Maps)

Yellowknife's sobering centre is looking to improve its relationship with its neighbours.

Last month, people who live and work close to the centre, which opened last Septembercomplained to city council about violent outbursts on the street, claiming the rowdy atmosphere downtown hurts their businesses.

But Yellowknife isn't the only city with this kind of program.

The Alpha House Calgary Society was established in 1981, and its executive director said it works to foster a relationship with the neighbourhood.

"The sobering centre is one intervention among many," said Kathy Christiansen. "It could be understanding what else the community needs in addition to a sobering centre."

The society runs programs such as street outreach, detox programs, housing first and a sobering centre.

"There is a continuum [of care] built around people who are vulnerable," she explained. 

Adapting with a changing neighbourhood

The Calgary centre is located downtown. Christiansen said as the city has grown, the neighbourhood around Alpha House has changed.

In 2019, there are businesses and a condo next door, Christiansen said, and the centre has had to adapt and find ways to work with its neighbours.

According to Christiansen, a staff member checks in with neighbouring businesses once a week, and the centre meets with neighbours as a group four times a year about how they can work together and to keep the lines of communication open.

Calgary's Alpha House says it works to build a relationship with its neighbours while supporting a sobering centre in the downtown. (Calgary Alpha House Society/Facebook)

They also provide training for neighbours and community groups who interact with vulnerable people in Calgary, like the centre's clients.

"It gives sort of context in terms of ... addictions, trauma, how it presents itself in the street," Christiansen said.

"It also talks about some practical tips on how to engage [with them] and what to do and what not to do, when to call for external help."

Christiansen said staff also patrol around the building to help manage how clients come in and out.

"[They're] also dealing with folks on the street and neighbours as well," Christiansen added. "There's such a change in the neighbourhood that that seems to help, that helps a lot, actually."

Yellowknife creates 'float' position, working on good neighbour policy

This is similar to a new 'float' position at the Yellowknife sobering centre responsible for keeping an eye on clients when they're in the surrounding area and helping to encourage them away from neighbour's properties.

Yellowknife's centre has also employed someone to clean up litter left by clients after neighbours complained.

A new 'float' position at the Yellowknife sobering centre is responsible for keeping an eye on clients in the neighbourhood. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

The Northwest Territories' Health and Social Services Authority is also working on a good neighbour policy, though it hasn't given details on what that will look like yet.

Health Minister Glen Abernethy said his department has also been meeting with neighbours to hear their concerns, and is looking into possibly hiring a security guard.

'It's about building relationships'

Christiansen has some advice for centres like Yellowknife's. 

"It's about building relationships, not only with the clients but ... educating people, but then keep in mind that a sobering centre provides a purpose." 

She added she believes a sobering centre on its own isn't a solution. Speaking generally, Christiansen said if a community has an issue like homelessness, that also needs to be tackled in order to see a change on the streets.

"It's about a broader spectrum of solutions for people that are vulnerable," she said. "Some of it is not just about adding more support to the sobering centre, but it's about making sure that the long-term outcomes for people who are being brought there on a regular basis are better."

In Yellowknife, the sobering centre offers programs such as peer support groups and group therapy that tackle topics like healing and anger management.

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