Inn from the Cold executive director Abe Brown didn’t come from a very religious family. A spiritual awakening — and a stint in retail management — led to him to help the homeless. However, he thinks the government could be doing more to help out too, as most of the shelter’s funding comes from the citizens of this city.

Growing up, Brown said his single-parent family also spent a little bit of time homeless and experienced some pretty significant poverty.

What he didn’t have was experience with religion. “Strangely enough, I didn’t actually grow up in a church, and I wasn’t raised in a faith-based household,” he said.

A few years later, he had a spiritual awakening that changed [his] life. When he was 16, Brown’s family moved from Toronto to Halifax, where he was invited to attend a local church.

“I went along because you know I was new to the city and thought I’d meet some people, meet some new friends, and that kind of thing.”

But he got much more than that out of the experience.

Brown said he was, “raised in a fatherless and a broken kind of abusive family,” and was “clearly not healthy, mentally or emotionally at the time.”

When he went church though, he felt like it was home.

Brown said, “People were really welcoming and open and then I would close my eyes and I could feel that — you know God’s love and acceptance. [It] made a big difference for me.”

Without that awakening Brown, who spent the majority of his youth on a self-destructive path, said he would either be in jail or in a grave.

His experiences in church eventually led to him to become a pastor. He would do this for several years until he begun a job in retail management at Vistek and TJX Canada/Winners Merchants International L.P.

“All of those years in the nonprofit world, sometimes there’s a bit of a false reality you know? It’s a sheltered existence,” said Brown.

“Not to be critical, but it was really helpful for me to get out of that [and] into, sort of the real world of business, and how [you can] either make or break in [an] organization based on your effectiveness at executing business strategy.”

Abe Brown sits in his office at Inn from the Cold. Though he has been the executive director there since January 2017, just decades earlier he was in poverty himself along with his family in Eastern Canada. Photo by Solaya Huang.

Leaving the non-profit and faith-based work to be a retail manager actually led Brown back to working with the less fortunate. With his newly acquired skills in business, he could now provide insight on how to manage finances, receive funding, and how and where to allocate resources in homeless shelters. First, he began working at the Calgary Drop-In Center (DI) as the director of programs.

“I was managing all of the front line delivery of care for the clients. I provided oversight to the largest program which is the shelter program, [which] when I was there [had] about 1,200 clients per night. I was in charge of all of the delivery of that program to those folks.”

After working at the DI for about six and a half years, he moved on to become the executive director of Inn from the Cold, a non-denominational homeless shelter.

“I’ve always been super interested in family homelessness,” he said about transitioning to his current job.

“When you think about the downstream impact of poverty, it’s just profound. The research is so clear that homeless children become homeless adults, so when this opportunity came I was really excited about it because it was it a great chance to make a difference in a super vulnerable population.”

When asked about what he does at Inn from the Cold, he explained that his job is to support the rest of the shelter’s other directors, including finances and resource development.

“It’s so cool,” he replied, “to be part of that a team of people, high-level people, who are super interested in building a community where no child or family is homeless.”

His colleagues appreciate his work as well, including Hilary Jenkins, who works in community engagement.

“He is a very incredible leader,” she said. “He’s doing a wonderful job.”

Louise Gallagher, director of communications and stakeholder relations, is a long-time colleague of Brown. They met when Brown started as a volunteer at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, as she was the communications director at the time. She has been at Inn from the Cold since 2017.  Photo courtesy of Louise Gallagher.

Louise Gallagher, another co-worker, also praised his leadership skills.

“He’s a really solid leader. He’s very visionary; he’s not reactive. He puts people first,” she added.

On what he has gotten out of his time at Inn from the Cold so far, Brown replied that he loves the opportunity it has given him.

“Everyday for me is like Thanksgiving day. I mean I don’t get the turkey every day unfortunately,” Brown said and laughed. “But I get the incredible sense that I’m part of something that’s making a difference and you know what? Inn from the Cold’s been here for 20 years, so that’s a 20-year legacy that I just get to be a part of. I’m so grateful for that.”

This legacy, according to Brown, is mainly supported by the generosity of Calgarians themselves.

“We could not do what we do without the generosity of Calgarians, literally we would have to shut down entire programs because what we get from the government is only 30 per cent [of Inn from the Cold’s funding].”

Despite this generosity, the shelter continues to struggle with helping everyone.

“Physically we can only put so many people in [the shelter],” said Brown.

Since April, they have been over capacity over 20 times, resulting in opening up their emergency overflow shelter located at Knox United Church.

“Just the fact that we had to trigger that so many times has been a profound challenge,” Brown continued, “and I don’t know that we can stop having to open it because families are still falling on hard times.”

On top of those who are already homeless, there are those who are on the brink of it.

“Fifteen per cent [of Calgarians] say that they don’t have enough to pay [for] their rent, their food, and their basic needs,” Brown revealed. “That is a huge number of people on the margins, like we’re talking over 100,000 Calgarians who are right on that edge.”

“We’ve all heard the anecdote that people are one or two paycheques away from homelessness, and I think in this city it’s actually true.”

With these statistics in mind, Inn from the Cold is looking at ways to prevent homelessness, including allocating resources into a new initiative called the Crossroads Building. Located on the second floor of Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre. It focuses on building a collaborative response to family homelessness.

What this collaboration does is connect agencies and people around Calgary to provide programs and service to those experiencing or on the verge of homelessness, eventually aiming for stable housing.

He strongly suggests that to help, the government should increase its funding, specifically around stable and affordable housing.

“Data shows that about 76 per cent of all the affordable housing in the city is two bedrooms or smaller.” But, according to Brown, this isn’t enough. “On average, families [using] Inn from the Cold have three children. Two bedrooms is not even legal. It’s not going to work. So we need more resources allocated to that.”

Brown said homelessness families in Calgary need more time than they are given to get back on their feet.

“It’s going to take more than a one or two-year program. Often you would we need to invest in these families for many years, and that’s just because they come from such a place of vulnerability,” he said and adds that such long-term support is necessary if you really want to break the cycle.

Brown said that supporting those who are in a vulnerable condition and giving back to the community is, “not about the colour of your skin; it’s not about your faith, it’s not about your ethnicity, it’s about the fact that Calgarians really believe that every one of us deserves equality. Every one of us deserves every opportunity to succeed.”

shuang@cjournal.ca

Editor: Kendra Crighton | kcrighton@cjournal.ca