From a distance, a figure huddles under the sidings of the Pizza Hut on 17th Avenue S.E., known as International Avenue, in Forest Lawn.
It’s about 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon last fall and Angel wakes up on a piece of cold, hard cardboard. Crouching near a shopping cart filled to the brim with her belongings, time begins to escape her as she opens her eyes and faces another day on the streets.
Angel tells me she’s been facing chronic homelessness for six years now. The shelter she built with cardboard and an insulated tarp at the side of the restaurant had been destroyed by passersby and the last of her earnings were spent on butane for her “torch,” Angel says she’s not having a good day.
“I was gonna re-set this up but some goof in the neighbourhood would probably just assume that it’s okay for them to just crawl on in when I’m not here…so I’m just gonna pack it up and cover it up and hope to god that there’s some sort of non-goof around today who aren’t gonna touch my shit.”
On any given night in Calgary, roughly 3,000 people are homeless. Many of those who experience homelessness suffer from physical and mental health challenges including addiction and trauma. In 2008, the city launched a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. While it didn’t achieve its ultimate goal, it did lead to a 32 per cent decrease in homelessness per capita after years of increases.
However, many of those on the streets of Calgary never manage to escape chronic homelessness. Mortality rates for people experiencing homelessness are 2.3 to 8.3 times higher than the general population of the same age according to University of Calgary researchers. This story is told to demonstrate the complexity of the toughest cases of homelessness through the lens of one woman, and her family, and to offer some thoughts about how to help.
At the corner of the Pizza Hut where Angel lives, clothing, blankets and miscellaneous objects are scattered throughout her setup but the temporary resident ensures everything is in order. Offering a red knitted chair pad, she ushers me to sit. She says she doesn’t want to see me sitting on the ground as she squats attempting to locate a missing shoe.
Although her hands are black from the debris and bottles she collects for money, she wears a ring on the ring finger of both hands and keeps her black hair accentuated by blue highlights tucked neatly back with an embellished headband and black fluffy earmuffs.
“The name I go by and the name everyone knows me by is Angel Nichols,” she says.
She’s asked me to call her Angel, but it’s not her real name. According to Angel, her friend gave her that name because she was often referred to as “everyone’s guardian angel.”
Angel immediately begins speaking of her husband, Darrin, as she moves around unable to sit or stand for short periods of time.
“We moved to Calgary three years ago from Red Deer to have a better life. I left my family and my full-grown daughter and I came to Calgary from Red Deer with my beautifully hearted husband only to find out that Calgary wasn’t all Darrin remembered it to be. People here are more ruthless and sadistic whether they meant it or not,” she says.
Darrin Thomas Amond was one of the 123 homeless Calgarians to die in 2019. According to Angel, she was panning a block away when Amond was beaten with a metal pipe until his skull collapsed.
It’s not long before Angel begins to cry.
“I miss my husband every day,” she says.
“He wasn’t always the best husband or the best friend, but he was always, always, always the best superhero.”
Darrin Thomas Amond, Angel’s common-law husband, was found on July 18, 2019 in the parking lot of the Whitehorn Safeway after having been seriously assaulted. Amond died 11 days afterwards in hospital. Angel says he was murdered for a $10 debt.
Amond, too, experienced chronic homelessness.
To understand Amond and his difficulties, his sister DeeJay (a pseudonym for privacy) said Amond’s mother died in 2014 and he “lost all hope.” The family also had a difficult history.
“Well our dad was ripped out of our lives when I was six months old because he was an alcoholic that was abusive. I didn’t meet my dad until I was 15. My mom took care of us most of our lives.”
“My brother and me always had a really strong bond. He always looked up to me when it came to working because…I was homeless as well. I always had his back and he always had mine. We kind of looked after each other on the streets,” DeeJay said.
DeeJay recalls her brother asking her to help him but she was out of province.
“That’s why I find it really hard that he got murdered over a drug debt because if his debt ever got really big he’d always contact me and let me know what was going on so I could help him. This time he didn’t contact me.”
In 2011, Amond was convicted with manslaughter for the unprovoked and random beating of Marcus Deveaux and served five years of an eight-year sentence due to credit for time served. Richard Ceasor, 21, received a life sentence with no parole for 10 years for second-degree murder of Deveaux.
A family member who knew both Amond and Nichols said Amond had protected Angel while on the streets together and had a kind side.
Amond’s sister DeeJay comments: “I’m guaranteeing you that something traumatizing probably happened to him. She added that Amond began using substances early on in life.
Katrina Milaney, an associate professor in community rehabilitation and disability studies at the University of Calgary, said there’s strong evidence showing that childhood trauma is a determining factor in homelessness and addiction in adults and youth.
Her team’s 2018 survey of 300 people experiencing chronic homelessness and sleeping rough in Calgary, revealed they suffered childhood trauma at a rate five times higher than the general population. This trauma may include neglect, parents with addiction, domestic violence and abuse.
“I’ve met many, many people over the years and heard many, many stories of people in shelters where people are in active substance use and every single one of them has had a traumatic childhood.
“They are at a very high risk of that sort of generational cycling of those issues into their own lives and into their own adulthood,” said Milaney.
Many participants in her study have cycled in and out of foster care, jails and hospitals. As a reaction to stress, 82 per cent of participants used alcohol and 70 per cent used drugs on a regular basis.
Her group recommends solutions including target housing and case management programs designed to address psychiatric issues resulting from childhood trauma.
“Substance use often always starts as a way of coping with grief and with trauma. It’s a temporary relief from the pain that people are feeling, pain that has been unresolved and not dealt with. And that sort of early coping becomes an addiction in lots of people,” said Milaney.
Alpha House is currently the only “wet shelter” in the city to support those with alcohol and drug dependencies. Contrary to the Drop-In Centre, Alpha House typically only allows individuals into their shelter that are “inebriated or intoxicated,” according to Steven Richardson, a former Alpha House worker, who is program manager with Street CCRED, (Community Capacity in: Research, Education, and Development) a community-based response to the suffering of Calgary’s most vulnerable citizens affiliated with the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the U of C.
For many of Calgary’s homeless like Angel with multiple complex needs, a roof over her head may not be enough to get her off the streets. Without early intervention and specialized case management workers, there seems to be limited hope.
Richardson believes that meeting people where they’re at has often been more successful than operating in a black and white system in which people are required to be clean of any substances before being housed.
“My impression is that the homeless population may not have the same rights or are not being considered to have the same dignity that the rest of the population [has],” said Richardson.
According to Richardson, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the health mandate dictates that everyone should maintain two metres distance apart but homeless populations are only mandated to be one metre apart.
Angel’s early life
Angel Nichols grew up near Grouard, Alta. for the first 10 years of her life until her stepfather received a job offer that moved her family to the town of Ponoka, Alta.. She was one of three siblings.
“I had an all right childhood. My real dad died when I was a baby. He had a tragic death. He drowned unexpectedly in our dugout. It was our water source. Because we lived way out in the booneys up north.”
Now one of Angel’s siblings lives in rural Alberta with his wife and children and the other in Vancouver.
At some point, things took a turn for Angel.
Angel’s brother, Phil Bowie said in an email, “I think that it is important that you know that my sister came from a loving family. Although people are programmed to judge one another for making choices that they can’t comprehend as being positive for their own growth, or betterment of their own futures, and although I am sure there has been some of that, she has so many people that care about her current situation and her future.”
Bowie said he continues to think of Angel every day but aside from unconditional and non-judgmental love, he lacks the tools to help her.
“When I see something beautiful or do something that I know she loves to do, I wish I had her by my side, to hear her voice sing another beautiful song…but I usually don’t even know where she can be found.”
“Her parents, her brothers and her child have held space for her in our hearts always. Years of turmoil from trying to “fix” everything had to be surrendered to come from a place of love, non-judgement and understanding,” said Bowie.
On the streets
Autumn wind gusts make standing outside for long periods of time almost unbearable. My hands and exposed feet in Birkenstocks start to turn a bright pink colour and seize up.
But to complain about feeling a bit cold after an hour of standing outside would almost be disrespectful to Angel, who woke up in the cold.
“I’m a panhandler and bottle picker. I mean when the cops aren’t harassing me and making life for me impossible,” Angel says. Two calls made to the Calgary Police Service media line to understand interventions for vulnerable populations were not returned.
She picks up a cardboard sign that had flown and landed a metre away from her. The writing is mostly black lettering with blue and white highlighting.
“That’s the sign I carry every day.”
“I don’t bottle pick as much anymore because something pretty tragic happened to me a week and a half ago maybe even two weeks ago now. I was picking bottles in an alley. I wasn’t going in anybody’s yards or anybody’s cars or anything like that. All I was doing was going in the dumpsters and not leaving a mess,” she explains.
“Two men came running out of their house and picked me off the side of the dumpster. And the only thing I remember is them smashing me in the side of the head.”
Angel says she was knocked unconscious and woke up the following afternoon.
“All because I was picking bottles so that I could eat so that I could survive.”
“I find it absolutely disgusting of them. There’s a lot of worst things that eventually will happen to them in their lives just because karma is such a bitch. I, fortunately for people, am not a vengeful person. But I’m also a person that doesn’t forget.”
Motioning towards the oversized wooden trunk in Angel’s cart, I ask her what it had contained.
“That wooden trunk holds my life, or the lasts of everything in my life,” she replied.
“Calgary has the most I won’t say notorious… Calgary has the most gooftorious laws. The dumbest, most ridiculous piles of bullshit laws. But I have a chest infection right now…I can’t carry even a backpack, and to carry anything in a cart is illegal. Illegal in the city of Calgary. The cart also helps me accumulate the right stuff that I need to continue my life. Basically Miss, all it has in there is clothes, a couple of other things that needed to be packed away.”
Dawn Rault, an instructor in the law and society program at the University of Calgary, said in an email that it is known that “many homeless people use shopping carts to transport their belongings, so they are ‘technically’ in possession of stolen property”.
“Most officers will turn an eye to this because they don’t want to criminalize homelessness, but some will pursue,” said Rault.
Angel begins to pack up the cardboard into her cart as she picks up a few candy wrappers and cleans up the area.
I ask Angel where she’s headed.
“To panhandle. I need to go panhandle. I need to make money because honest to God, and I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, I need dope or I’m going to severely seizure out. I have a severe uncontrollable seizure.”
Angel says in her late twenties, she began experiencing seizures which made her unable to keep a job. Since becoming homeless, Angel’s physical health has faced severe deterioration suffering from pneumonia, lacerations, and constant headaches as a result of a concussion.
According to Katrina Milaney, one of the biggest issues Alberta is currently facing is limited access to community-based treatment for addiction and mental health.
“If someone is ready for treatment and most treatment programs won’t accept you unless you have a period of sobriety. And so people will go to detox for three days, come out of detox, and there’s a six-month wait to get into a treatment program,” she said.
“And so if you are experiencing homelessness or have unstable housing or are in low income, you are sort of at risk of cycling back into addiction or back into active use if there is no support for you in the treatment program.”
Milaney sees policy as currently creating and influencing gaps in the current system. She said Alberta’s current approach to cost cutting and economic stimulation often takes presence over supporting the health and well-being of vulnerable populations.
“My concern right now is that we are moving into a time and place where social programs and funding for social programs is at risk because it is seen as a cost rather than a benefit to our communities and to our people.”
Milaney said that most people will access an emergency shelter for a short period of time but often the individuals who fall into homelessness and get stuck are the ones with the most complex health issues.
Milaney said she’s met many people who have said they’ve tried to access emergency health care at an acute care facility but felt they were being harshly judged because staff saw them as drug users or homeless.
Many homeless Calgarians with complex needs are unable to receive treatment for their issues and have been turned away from hospitals and programs according to Milaney.
“One man I met went to a clinic for treatment for an infection in his arm that he caught from a scrape on a barb wire fence – he was told to come back when he was sober – he left and the infection became septic and he ended up being rushed to hospital in an ambulance,” Milaney said.
“Stories like this spread and many people are afraid to seek help when they need it.”
Darrin Amond’s sister, DeeJay said she is currently housed in a transitional housing site in B.C. where they’ve begun putting a hold on taking in those with complex needs and tightening restrictions on who is allowed in, as the number of individuals with severe health needs has increased beyond capacity.
“Staff no longer has the energy to deal with the mental disability patients and clients that are here, so a lot of them are going to find themselves on the street because staff can’t handle it, they’re not equipped to,” said DeeJay.
According to Milaney, another organization currently facing cuts is the Elizabeth Fry Society for which she serves on the board of directors. The organization works to keep vulnerable populations out of the justice system and homelessness. But these cuts seem to continue amidst the pandemic where many homeless people are unable to find housing and wary of shelters.
COVID-19 offers special challenges: Richardson of Street CCRED said the Drop-In Centre, Mustard Seed and Centre of Hope are among the charitable organizations in the city that have faced funding cuts by the provincial government to house homeless populations during times of increased need for social distancing.
“They had a secondary shelter that they provided for the Drop-In shelter as well as the Mustard Seed and Alpha House [which] were given additional dollars to find hotels to provide more spacing and appropriate accommodations for people. Unfortunately, funding for all these ended and I believe it was end of July. Since the beginning of August there hasn’t been additional funding. … and in that time period we’ve seen the biggest surge of COVID so it’s pretty challenging to say that we’re really supporting the population,” said Richardson.
Housing vulnerable populations with complex needs
Lana Bentley, director of program strategy at YW Calgary said the complex needs of some homeless people can make obtaining and maintaining housing challenging.
Bentley is a registered social worker with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from the University of Calgary. Over the years, Bentley has been involved in mental health, domestic violence prevention and human services work.
“There also needs to be co-ordination to attend all the other things that make it possible for somebody to have a home. So this would mean emotional support, psychological support, the ability to mend their physical health. There’s all those domains of health and wellness that factor into somebody moving from rough sleeping and being homeless to actually having a home,” said Bentley.
Despite working in the non-profit and health care sector for many years, Bentley said, “I can tell you that homelessness is an issue that does not discriminate.”
Bentley believes progress continues to be made with increased public awareness surrounding the issue since the Housing First strategy, an approach with no preconditions for housing.
“I think my vision is really strong inclusive communities where everybody has a sense of belonging. I think in order for the community to be inclusive and have that strength it means that the diverse needs of a person are met. That includes having a physical place to live and to land. It also means that the mental, emotional, psychological and physical needs of a person are also nourished,” said Bentley.
Experts like Bentley and Milaney note that although there is work that has yet to be done, much progress has been made for those who face homelessness.
Richardson believes there exists enough support for homeless populations experiencing multiple complex challenges however, the infrastructure does not enable it to be effective. Due to demand and waitlists, some clinics and program policies make missing one appointment a means to kick an individual out altogether.
“On a provincial policy level, figuring out better ways to support persons with multiple morbidities, so whether it’s alcohol, drugs, physical ailments – more effectively meeting people where they’re at is I think is the one area where we’re the least effective – where we seem to be moving actually backward,” said Richardson
In response to how the current provincial government is filling the gaps related to mental health and addiction services, Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to the associate minister of mental health and addiction, said the Alberta government has allocated $25 million as a part of Alberta’s Economic Recovery Plan to create five recovery communities.
“Recovery communities are part of an integrated system that encompasses clients of the health system, the justice system and the community social services system,” said Kitz.
“The format of these programs is such that people experiencing homelessness would participate in a gradual, ongoing process of cognitive change through clinical and peer interventions (typically over a year long period) – advancing through the stages of treatment at their own pace, setting personal objectives, and assuming greater responsibilities in the community along the way.”
Kitz also said in an email that Alberta recently eliminated all user fees for publicly funded residential addiction treatment so people experiencing homelessness can participate in addiction treatment free of charge at many facilities across the province.
In response to the statement released by the Alberta government, Milaney said there is a definite gap in access to low barrier treatment programs and that it is important to consider treatment programs as part of a continuum of services that are needed.
“Addiction is a complex disease and requires multiple avenues for support including harm reduction services. The other consideration would be to ensure there is streamlined access between detox programs and the new treatment programs.”
Final words with Angel
Although I can’t say I know who Angel was after meeting her once or speaking to her family, she’s led me to believe that behind the layers of complexity that make up her challenges is an individual worthy of receiving limitless, compassionate support to ensure she doesn’t fall through the cracks.
After snacking on a handful of Sour Patch Kids wrapped in a takeout napkin, Angel pops a gum into her mouth and hands me a brand new pack of Dentyne Ice she had binned.
“Here, have a pack of gum,” Angel says.
Aware of her circumstances, I politely turn down her offer and thank her for her generosity. But Angel insists and eventually I accept.