Lived experience of homelessness inspires Calgary advocacy organization

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On a warmer than usual night in early January, a man stands on top of the Reconciliation Bridge in downtown Calgary.

Water rescue teams wait by the river while firefighters set up a ladder. Two policemen try to speak with the man above.

He refuses to come down while they are there.

Chaz Smith is familiar with tough scenarios like this. He is the founder and CEO of BeTheChangeYYC, a street outreach group that connects people to housing programs and shelters, and also distributes food and supplies.

He walks onto the closed bridge and identifies himself before he begins to speak with the man and asks him what would bring him down.

“I said what I needed. Make them go!

Smith turns to the officers and relays the message.

“He wants you to go and then he’ll come down.”

For several minutes, Smith is alone on deck talking to the man pacing on the steel bars above. Members of the Calgary Police Department and Calgary Fire Department wait across the intersection and at the end of the block.

After BeTheChangeYYC volunteers deliver a lunch bag, along with a requested cigarette, the man goes downstairs.

Smith helped first responders attempt to lower a man standing atop the Bridge of Reconciliation. He did this by talking to her and bringing her a sandwich and a cigarette. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

The task that emergency responders were called upon to tackle was finally accomplished by Smith and a few members of his team with a chat, a sandwich, and a smoke.

After the tense scenario, the wagons full of supplies are picked up and the team begins the evening outreach shift. Throughout the night, they interact with homeless people downtown, always making sure to ask them where they are staying.

Lived experience

Smith has spent years building relationships with the community and is approached by some familiar people.

His ability to connect isn’t just based on his sense of empathy. At the age of 15, Smith himself experienced homelessness.

When the police first took Smith to a shelter, they were helping her move on from a difficult family life.

“There were a lot of different aspects, a lot of things going on that I wouldn’t wish on any child,” Smith recalled.

He says he tried but failed to keep up with school. He was able to find a job, but found that working homeless brought other challenges.

Meal times at shelters didn’t always match his scheduled shifts.

“I know many days I’ve gone without food, and I remember eventually you get so hungry the pain goes away. It’s pretty miraculous how the body can do that,” Smith said.

He blames his tumultuous upbringing for his battles with depression and anxiety and says his poor mental health was exacerbated by feeling that no one cared about him.

“I learned to hate myself, and I didn’t know who I was or what my purpose was. I just felt like a waste.”

End of cycle

The change came in the form of one support worker in particular who refused to give it up. Smith says she took the time to make him feel loved and influenced him to make better decisions.

“I was confused, I was like, ‘Why does she care so much? I don’t even care a bit.’ And then it made me think, ‘Maybe I’m worth looking after. Maybe there’s something here.'”

Smith found a home through the Infinity Project, which he says prepared him for more success. He stopped self-medicating with drugs and returned to school.

BeTheChangeYYC members deliver food and supplies, and connect people to housing programs and shelters during their outreach walks. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

After three years of living in shelters, Smith was able to secure housing in 2008.

More than a decade later, he and BeTheChangeYYC volunteers walk the same streets on outreach shifts.

Smith says the goal of the program, which became a registered nonprofit in 2018, is to inspire the kind of awareness he had with his support worker.

“When you feel so dissociated from everyone around you, when you already feel invisible, having someone treat you with dignity, on your terms, reminding you that you exist, I think that’s powerful,” he said. he declared.

be the change

BeTheChangeYYC is made up of paramedics, social work students and other volunteers who Smith calls the heart of the organization.

Bill Zheng joined the group after trying out walks with friends.

The high school student manages the group’s social media channels in addition to doing outreach shifts. He says the majority of people they meet welcome their presence.

“I wanted to join a bigger organization that could deliver more, so BeTheChangeYYC is perfect for that,” Zheng said. “It’s very friendly, so I really like this environment we’re creating here.”

For Austin Deck, he says being a nursing student made him think differently about contributing to his community.

“That’s really what BeTheChangeYYC is about, it’s about building community and empowering community.”

Austin Deck is a nursing student who volunteers with BeTheChangeYYC. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

Deck also credits Smith’s passion for inspiring him to volunteer.

“His ability to meet people where they are and show their uniqueness and watch them and what they bring to the table is something I really recognize,” Deck said.

One of the organization’s founding members, Kristen Baranieski, met Smith when they were both homeless as teenagers.

She says that when they were 16, they walked around the city center trying to help others get the services they needed.

“It was something that we missed when we were young, so we definitely felt the need to continue on this adventure,” Baranieski said.

BeTheChangeYYC now serves hundreds of people every week. Smith says he wants people who see someone experiencing homelessness to think of him and know that the situation may be temporary.

“Everyone has so much potential, and I can only imagine if people had let me down, so many things wouldn’t have happened.”

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