Alpha House continues to reach out

A Journal reporter spends a night at newly renovated addiction treatment centre

If one term could be found to describe a night spent at Alpha House, it would be “eye-opening.” Despite accusations from defenders of Calgary’s homeless that there aren’t enough funds and not enough individuals receive care, inside Alpha House – a combined short-term rehabilitation facility and day shelter for homeless alcohol and drug addicts – there is a dedicated staff that truly cares about their fellow human beings.

Granted, this compassion and commitment to Calgary’s less fortunate isn’t immediately apparent. During a seven-hour stay at the newly renovated shelter and detoxification centre on the corner of 15th Avenue and First Street, this reporter witnessed a zero-tolerance attitude towards disrespectful or unruly behavior, and even watched as staff had to strong-arm a few forceful ejections from the property.

But shouldn’t everyone be given care? I wondered, as I watched staff escort individuals off the property.

“Yes, everyone should be entitled to the same level of care for their problems, but that goes out the window when the clients become a risk to the safety of others,” said Ali, a member of the night staff. Alpha House workers are required to not divulge their full names, due to the potential threat of clients seeking to track them down at their homes.

“It can be hard sometimes to turn people away. But it can sometimes be very easy,” said Ali with a laugh as she recalled having to shove a potentially violent man off the premises just a couple minutes before.

Laughing things off seems to be the only release these workers have, especially when so much darkness threatens to loom over the entire enterprise. When I walked into the building at 6 p.m., I learned that a woman had died just a couple of days prior from liver complications due to excessive drinking, and emotions amongst the staff were still raw. For most people outside these walls, this is a regrettable tragedy. But for those who work here, it unfortunately seems like “just another day.”

7 p.m. – Shift Change

I arrived just in time for the changing of the guard, as the daytime workers transferred power to the night team. After exchanging greetings, day worker Katerina recounted the events of the past 12 hours to her shift successors.

The bizarre list of incidents that had taken place in just one shift was close to horrifying, the highlight being a notoriously rocky relationship that had come to blows outside the shelter.

It started when a woman began to push her boyfriend in a shopping cart, dumping him from the cart onto the pavement outside, and eventually throwing the cart on top of him. The woman, along with roughly 15 others, has been banned from the shelter various times before, for a variety of incidents.

On average, Alpha House admits anywhere from 100 to 250 clients to its shelter every day. With roughly 50 mats in the cavernous hall – another 40 are added in wintertime – it’s no wonder staff would rather hold spots for people who respect the privilege of having a roof to sleep under while going through the throes of withdrawal.

“This is, ideally, a place of respect and understanding,” said Ali. “Not just between staff and clients, but among the clients themselves. Most of them, after they come back from a ban, get the message.”

7:30-9:30 p.m. – Admittance

According to staff, the hours between 7 and 10 p.m. are the busiest time and “when the best action is.” This is when those who have been drinking all day are looking for shelter.

One by one, clients are ushered inside. I watch them empty their pockets and remove their bags. Zoe (staff) pats each down thoroughly; Rebecca (staff) escorts them to mats in the spacious hall of the shelter. Ali and later Joe (staff) sit behind a desk, taking names and handing out sandwiches from a mini-fridge.

As new clients were admitted, those already inside would sporadically come up and ask for a variety of items or services: a phone call, a towel, shampoo, toothpaste, a toothbrush, hot sauce. The staff, amazingly, was able to keep people in line with little trouble.

Sometime later, paramedics arrived at the front door. I looked to see whom they were attending to, and right at my feet, beside the door to the office, was a man going through serious withdrawal. His name was Curtis.

Curtis was shivering so hard that his mat was shuffling across the floor. The moans emanating from his throat were beyond anything I’d heard in my life. Later, another Alpha House worker named Karen, a 15-year veteran, would say that this is “the worst I have seen anyone withdrawal here.”

Rather than take Curtis with them, the EMS workers talked him out of going to the hospital, saying that the projected wait time would be seven hours and he would be waiting in a chair. Curtis agreed he’d rather lay here on his mat and have the staff at Alpha House monitor him and make sure he’s OK.

“The paramedics are required to keep the patient on a stretcher and stay with them until a bed is freed up, but they didn’t tell [Curtis] that,” said Karen afterwards. “This happens all the time: the paramedics are called, they say it will be fine and leave, and then we usually end up having to call again. It’s just a waste of time.”

It would seem that the relationship between EMS and Alpha House is difficult.

“We have a pair of regulars who are wonderful,” said Karen. “But it has taken a long time for us to build that relationship, to build that trust.”

9:30-11 p.m. – Detoxification

After spending a night sobering up in the shelter, clients can move upstairs to detoxification, where they can attempt to kick their addictions. For alcoholics, the recovery program lasts three days; addicts to crack or other drugs spend seven to 10 days. There’s also extended stay for people with health problems, or those who are waiting for a bed at a long-term rehabilitation centre.

Detoxification houses roughly 42 people per night, while the extended-stay area keeps an average of 16. In September, out of 139 clients administrated into detox, 75 completed the recovery program – 54 per cent – while 30 went on to other treatment programs. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous meet weekly, while each day features a different activity or meeting, such as yoga or relapse prevention.

The detox floor was quieter and more relaxed than the rest of Alpha House, but far from boring. The faces of these people spoke volumes: ravaged by time and hard living, they simply looked tired.

One middle-aged woman, who called herself “Tina Turner,” was wide awake and willing to talk about her struggles.

She was originally from Vancouver, Tina told me, but moved to Alberta last year to be with her sister, who lives in Airdrie, and to get clean.

“I did this on my own,” said Tina. “Nobody could have forced me to do this. I had to realize what I had to do by myself.”

Tina was waiting to use the phone so she could say goodnight to her 18-year-old son. It’s apparent that he’s the reason she’s here.

“I just turned 50,” she said, “and I’m a grandmother with two kids of my own. I went through 30 years being addicted to crack, alcohol, and tobacco, and I’m here to kick them all out of my life, so that when I go to Christmas dinner with my family in December, I can play with my granddaughter and laugh with my kids, and have my family back again.

“This is for them: this is for my boy; this is for my grandchild; this is for my daughter. No one else. There’s nothing more important in life than family, and being able to show them that you’re OK again.”

11 p.m.-12:30 a.m. – The DOAP Team

Downstairs, almost all of the mats in the shelter were taken. The entire floor was eerily quiet compared to a few hours ago. Almost as soon as I had descended the stairs, Ali came up to me and asked if I would like to take a ride with the DOAP team.

DOAP (Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership) helps Alpha House in a variety of ways. The shelter’s outreach program team rides around in a marked van and helps potential, past or recovering clients on the streets: they hand out bagged meals, give condoms to working girls, deliver clean needles to syringe users, and – most importantly – transport people to either Alpha House or to the Calgary Drop-In Centre, which doesn’t accept clients who are inebriated.

I climbed into the van with the DOAP workers, Nicole and Jodi, and we started on what they called a “stroll”: patrolling the streets for people who needed assistance, or potential transports. Nicole held onto a cell phone, the team’s main line. The DOAP team receives over 600 calls a month from shelters, Calgary police, or outside individuals seeking to help those with addictions. The team works closely with the police and EMS, and both provide roughly one-third of all calls made to the DOAP line.

“We want to improve that number,” said Nicole as we drove down 14th Avenue. “We’ve worked very hard to build a relationship with the police, and are trying to let them know that we’re the ones to call. When they don’t call us, they’ll call Alpha House, who end up calling us on their behalf anyways, so we want to make that line of communication cleaner.”

Just as with the staff at Alpha House, Nicole and Jodi seemed able to recognize almost every client they came across. This showed their dedication, and how close they had come to several of their wards. Nicole said this ability develops from experience.

“Both of us worked in shelters for a year and a half before joining the DOAP team,” she said. “The people who go to Alpha House are usually repeat clients, so after a while you get to know them really well just by seeing them every day and talking to them. That experience has helped us tremendously with what we do here.”

Jodi spoke up: “I tell everyone that they should have at least a year’s experience working [at a] shelter before joining DOAP. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re looking for. We can find [clients] and give them the option of getting a ride there, because sometimes it’s imperative.”

A little while later, Nicole got a call from the Drop-In Centre: someone too intoxicated to stay there needed a ride to Alpha House. Jodi stepped on the gas and we sped to the other side of downtown.

We arrived at the Drop-In, and a man climbed into the backseat beside me. I could see traces of dried blood on his face, and he smelled of alcohol. This was Harold, a past client who hadn’t been heard from for a while. Harold leaned towards me and recounted his evening: he had escaped two incidents where people attacked him, he said, and was afraid for his life.

Once we got back to Alpha House, Harold got out of the van and thanked Nicole and Jodi for the ride, before running into some friends outside the shelter entrance, waiting to get in. A freshly taped-up sign was in the window: “SORRY, WE ARE FULL.” Harold had a mat waiting for him, but the rest would have to wait until a mat opened up, which could be hours.

12:30-1 a.m. – Final Words

Back inside, every mat was indeed taken, and everyone had slipped into a deep, sobering sleep. Even Curtis was finally passed out, and his shivers of withdrawal had decreased into the occasional twitch of his foot.

So how does Alpha House judge success? Considering its detoxification programs are short-term, and many simply use the shelter for an evening and then go back to the streets to feed their addictions for another day, it’s even hard for the staff to judge how exactly they’re helping.

“It’s a constant struggle, and it can be disheartening to see the same faces in the same inebriated state almost every night,” said Ali. “But we give them a place to stay, we give them as much as we can, and that helps, if only for a little while.

“Plus, those who want to kick their habits have the opportunity to do so. They just move upstairs and start the program. Some of them complete it, and they recover. A lot more don’t, but that’s their choice.”

Zoe added: “Some of our older clients are aware of what they’re doing. They say, ‘I know I’m an alcoholic, and I’m going to be for the rest of my life.’ And they go upstairs, they detox, they clean up, they recharge their bodies…. And then they’re back out there, and go through it all again.

“Whenever they need us,” she said, “however many times they need to come back…we’re here.”

Originally published November 2009