At the age of 15, Chaz Smith entered into the care of the child welfare system.
Experiencing homelessness as a youth, he could have never imagined that 14 years later, he would be running a non-profit organization that provides outreach assistance to Calgary’s homeless population.
But after escaping homelessness, Smith founded the non-profit, Be The Change YYC in 2015 in hopes of ultimately ending homelessness.
While attending James Fowler High School, Smith was removed from his home and taken to the Exit Youth Shelter.
Smith was homeless for three years until the age of 18, in and out of child service programs and shelters.
On any given night in Calgary, roughly 300 youth experience homelessness, up to 40 per cent among them identifying as LGBTQ2S+.
During his teenage years, Smith was among those numbers. Being gay, Smith says he faced bullying in school and after being thrown-out from shelters several times, he eventually felt safer on the streets.
“When I didn't have a shelter when they were full, when I got kicked out of programs for not following rules, I would stay in heated parkades downtown or I would walk around all night with a blanket around me,” Smith says.
“The human body's pretty remarkable. You'll do whatever it takes at that point to stay warm and stay alive.”
A dark past fuels a renewed hope for the future
When Smith aged out of the child welfare system, he managed to get himself off the streets temporarily.
But it was through the Infiniti Project, a Boys and Girls’ Club of Calgary program, that Smith received supports that enabled him to escape homelessness permanently.
The Infiniti Project, funded by the Calgary Homeless Foundation works with youth aged 16 to 24, to help them obtain housing and become self-sufficient.
Smith says he not only received a first month’s rent and damage deposit along with counselling and therapy but the foundations and networks that allowed him to rebuild his “little community structure”.
“I started going to church. I took my first-year carpentry through a program at the Y and so I just started rebuilding those things that most people take for granted like friends and reconnecting with my family,” he says.
Smith’s youth worker, Krista Mergal says from a young age, he had incredible leadership skills and special hopes and dreams.
“There's just a special twinkle for Chaz. I don't even know how to explain it… I think he has the gift of empathy,” says Mergal.
“Although his past was so rough, although he had gone through so many traumatic things, he was always interested in how he could use that to help other people. Even when he wasn't doing his best, even when he wasn't well, he was always thinking about others.”
Working with homeless populations for over 15 years, Mergal says Smith was, “stuck in a difficult lifestyle” for a period of time in which kids with trauma attempt to medicate in different ways.
While on the streets, Smith turned to illicit drugs and cigarettes to cope.
“I don't think that the general public really understands the impact that that type of abuse has on someone. And how difficult it is to keep your head above water when you've been through those things,” she says.
Mergal stayed in touch with Smith over the past 14 years and says witnessing his growth fuels her hope for the future of the homeless youth she serves today.
“To see and to have been apart of Chaz's past when he was in some of his darkest times; wanting to take his own life, not having a place to live, having addictions that he was struggling with,” Mergal says.
“And now, to look at how hard he's worked to manage the mental health stuff that he's got going on for him, [to] manage all of the triggers that come with all of the abuse he's been through and take all of those things and use them as fuel to then give back to his community, is a pretty powerful thing.”
Mergal says the lived experience Smith brings is a valuable gift to those experiencing homelessness today as his example is hope in itself.
“He's taken everything that he's been through, put it in his gas tank and uses it as fuel every day to give back to those people who are where he was,” says Mergal.
Turning the tide of homelessness
Today, Smith runs the volunteer-based non-profit, providing Calgary’s homeless population with basic necessities such as food and water, harm reduction items and resource guides.
Pulling carts and wagons every Wednesday, Smith and his team walk the downtown streets assisting upwards of 150 individuals during each outreach event.
By building trust and fostering relationships, the organization attempts to reconnect the homeless to society, enabling them to access addiction services or the resources needed to become housed.
Barbara Reid, peer support coordinator says volunteering at the organization has allowed her to give back the compassion she was shown by the Indigenous community when she became homeless after fleeing from domestic violence.
“Everything I do right now is because of that journey of being homeless,” she says.
“It humbled me.”
Reid says often times those they interact with will often choose a few minutes of conversation over a sandwich, their biggest fear - being shunned.
“People are afraid that you’re not gonna talk to them. And they’re really wanting that connection with somebody so that they know that someone notices…and can see them as a person instead of making them feel like they’re not worthy of anything,” she says.
“And that’s what I give to them. I give to them what they tried to give to me.”
Ending homelessness: A community effort
Many individuals in the Calgary community have witnessed the genuine compassion and efforts shown by Be The Change during their outreach events.
Nizar Mohamed, owner of Kanata Trading Post often donates to the organization and believes they “deserve the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire Award].”
“I think these guys are really special. I mean what they're doing, a lot of people don't do,” Mohamed says.
“It goes to the right people. That's the point.”
Smith’s journey out of homelessness leads him to believe fewer people on the streets would result from stronger communities.
“I recognized when I was young that homelessness was actually a community issue,” says Smith.
The organization’s name is inspired from Gandhi’s famous words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
According to Smith, the volunteers of the organization have had their share of hardship be it mental illness, addiction or homelessness.
However, as a result of rising up to the challenge, they have not only changed their own lives but endeavour to enact change on the lives of others to end homelessness once and for all.
- By Michelle Huynh