How an afternoon at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre changed my understanding of homelessness

An assortment of people mingled outside the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre just before noon. As I walked from my car to the front door of the tall brick building, it was easy to notice the differences between us. Disgruntled expressions. Baggy clothing. Unkempt hair. Nicotine. My suburban-dwelling self felt miles away from comfortable.

“Did I lock the car?” I remember thinking. I pressed the lock button on my car remote one more time to hear the reassuring chirp it makes. I was there to serve lunch, but thankfully – as I realized throughout the afternoon – I was about to learn a few things as well.

The DI, as they call it, is a refuge for many Calgarians caught in homelessness, and in many cases, the propeller needed to escape its clutch. Through a variety of programs that offer food, affordable housing and education, the staff helps people to get back on their feet. Their clients are the ones our fast-paced, success-driven culture looks down upon. Blemishes. By looking past the common stigma, the staff at the DI are able to see the individuality of each person and help them without judgment.

I was bordering on late, so I did my best to suppress the illogical feelings of danger and worry filling my head. Instead I focused on finding the reception desk and paging Jordan Hamilton, the public relations director and my tour guide for the day. I got to the counter just in time. Shortly after speaking to the receptionist, Hamilton’s name blared through the loudspeaker. He arrived and showed me up to the cafeteria on the second floor.

Hamilton was wearing a crisp grey suit, which was in stark contrast to the attire worn by the men and women milling about. I quickly realized that he doesn’t let his professional title elevate him on a hierarchy.

On Family Day, Hamilton spent the afternoon with a friend from the DI. The woman had come to the DI with an addiction, but with their help she had moved into her own place. Hamilton was delighted by their friendship. I could see in the way his face lit up as he spoke of her. In no way did he miss spending that stat holiday with his family. Instead, he was honoured that she would invite him into her home.The Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre (the DI) provides a meal for anyone in need three times a day seven days a week. Although they only receive $1.20 a day to feed each person, through volunteers and corporate sponsors the DI is able to provide meals with a lot more substance than a cup of ramen noodles. Courtesy of Christina + Nathan Photography

As we walked up the staircase, we could hear an array of voices that eventually blurred into a cloud of white noise. Inside the cafeteria, orange-shirted staff hustled about and the men and women waiting for a meal filled the chairs.

Hamilton led me briskly up the middle aisle towards the back counter where volunteers waited to start serving the food. The DI serves three meals a day, seven days a week. Since half of the clients work from nine to five, the DI also provides a bag lunch they can take to their job.

“We believe filling bellies and filling spirits is pretty important,” Hamilton told me.

Like a waitress, I carried plates of coleslaw, breaded fish and fries back and forth across the room.

“There you go sir,” I said. “This is for you ma’am, enjoy.”

Some said thanks with a big smile, others nodded, and some didn’t say much at all. I was okay with this because I didn’t know what anyone had been through or was currently dealing with. I also didn’t understand what it felt like to be at a shelter because you need help. An array of circumstances bring people to this place – poor upbringing, a downturn in the economy, addiction, job loss – and because I don’t know each person’s story, I realized I couldn’t judge the way they interacted with me.

I was thankful I got to experience one of the programs offered by the DI, but I found it was the time I spent with Hamilton that impacted me the most.

Seven or eight of us waited in a small corner of the second floor for the elevator. To get into the space I squeezed past a woman in pink leaning on crutches. Hamilton saw her and said, “I like your hair Amber. It is really pretty.” “Thanks,” she said, blushing. Her friend had styled it for her into a number of tiny half braids.

When we reached the fifth floor, Hamilton and I shuffled off the elevator and into a nicely furnished room with big open windows. The floor is home to men and women in the DI’s supported living programs, which helps people who are moving toward independence. It is vacant during the day, and according to Hamilton, a lot more open than his office. As we walked towards a table, he began telling me about Amber.

With the help of countless volunteers, the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre (the DI) serves a meal for hundreds of hungry Calgarians three times a day seven days a week. Courtesy of Christina + Nathan Photography.“Amber is getting married at the centre,” he told me. “Her dress is hanging in my office.” She had saved up $100 for a wedding dress, but when she asked the DI for some help, they introduced her to Durand Bridal and Formal Wear. There she was treated like a queen. Without a dollar limit, the store told Amber to find her favourite dress and they clothed her and her bridesmaid from head to toe. Amber and her bridesmaid both cried.

“A lot of people wouldn’t think you can find joy and love and respect in a homeless shelter, but here we do all of those things. This is a safe space where people can finally be themselves instead of struggling,” said Hamilton.

That is because the DI is not only a shelter from Calgary’s cold winter, but also a shelter from the stigma many face on the street. However, breaking through this stigma is not easy and it may be something each person needs to do individually. The thoughts that plagued my mind as I walked into the DI were saturated with pre-conceived ideas. As I listened to Hamilton speak, I felt ashamed of them.

People who are homeless are people like you and me, and it is through these human-to-human moments that we start to erase the false impressions our society has given us. After spending time at the Calgary Drop-in & Rehab Centre, I didn’t feel like a philanthropic hero. Instead, I became more aware of each person’s individuality and started to see past the stereotypes that had originally blinded my perception.

Like me, Hamilton also had an experience that changed his perspective on this. Shortly after he was hired, he was walking home at night and saw a couple of people visibly intoxicated by the train tracks he had to walk underneath. He got nervous and even started reconsidering his route. “If I don’t look at them, then they won’t look at me,” he thought. He hoped they wouldn’t kill him, these “dangerous horrible people,” he told me in a sarcastic tone, laughing.

As he passed by, one of them yelled, “Staff!” The man got up, gave him a big hug and added, “Staff! You are doing a great job.”

That moment spoke to Hamilton because although he was looking down on the man, the man didn’t look down on him. “It helped me be a better person and to look for the good in people instead of their troubles and struggles.”

asimpson@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Curtis Dowhaniuk, cdowhaniuk@cjournal.ca