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The unique approach of The Doorway

Not so very long ago, we were constantly aware of homeless people on the streets of Calgary asking for spare change, just enough for a coffee and something to eat.

Not so very long ago, we were constantly aware of homeless people on the streets of Calgary asking for spare change, just enough for a coffee and something to eat. That happens less frequently today, although we occasionally still see young people holding a sign, walking between the lanes of cars at a stop light asking for small donations. This change is not the result of some vigorous police program to discourage their presence on the streets. Rather, it is the result of the spontaneous generosity of thousands of ordinary Calgarians and the municipal and corporate sector as well, and the vision of a few deeply committed social activists to provide a roof and meals for all who need it, today and for as long as that service is required.

For the most part, our homeless citizens are welcomed, fed and safely housed every night by caring workers and volunteers in the many shelters that now exist here in Calgary. Shelters like Inn from the Cold, which I reviewed recently, or the even larger shelters like the Mustard Seed or the Drop-In and Rehab Centre and many more. For an amateur like me looking at these shelters from the outside, it is a story that needs to be told so that more of us can appreciate and come to support their work - a work we know we ourselves simply could not do. And over time I will try to tell that story.

The agency I am reviewing today is unique among the many shelters that offer such useful and welcome aid to the homeless. This agency offers no warm beds, no meals for the hungry, perhaps a friendly cup of coffee but no accommodation at all. And it is very unlikely to offer advice either. Oh, and in case I fail to mention it later, while the address is 2808 Ogden Rd. S.E., Calgary, if you can find it on your first attempt you are a sharper observer than I was when I visited there. It took more than an hour to find the location and I was not at all sure I had found it when I did park in front of it.

There is no bright sign with people waiting to welcome you. The windows are all frosted glass, and when you spot the door a very discreet note in two-inch high letters tells you that you have found
The Doorway. That’s it.

Inside, you see an assortment of desks and several bookshelves holding large three-ring binders with various identification marks facing you. Several telephones, some computers, a coffee machine with rather good and very welcome coffee I will admit, and a variety of other pieces of office equipment. The main area seemed to house desks with a single chair in front and behind each, and a row of other chairs, obviously for people waiting to speak to one of the workers at The Doorway. I did not walk through the entire area of the unit, but I think there is only one office, and all the rest of the space is filled with small conversation tables and chairs, but separated from each other to allow for confidential conversation to take place.

The Executive Director of The Doorway, Marilyn Dyck, introduces every new potential participant to the planning process they will use at The Doorway. Together, they go through the program and how it works. There is an age limitation. The agency only deals with clients 17 to 24 years old and currently living on the street at the time of application to the agency. The business planning approach to make personal change is the engine driving this agency. It is the reason for its existence and has proved to be exceptionally successful for young people completing their individual 24-month program. It produces graduates year after year at a consistent rate of 70 per cent.

Each young person accepted into the program is presented with a monthly planning sheet to name the goals for which they will create a planned set of steps to achieve for that month. "Where am I now? Where do I want to be instead? What do I need to do to implement my plan?" Participants create eight steps per month for two years. They choose from a list of 13 life categories to identify their focus for this plan: e.g., housing, employment, legal, health, education, etc. These are the life goals you would expect to find in the mind of someone attempting to bring order and meaning to a life that is that is currently drifting without direction and producing no satisfaction for the participant. And for many of these young people this will be a very new and challenging experience, but it is the road they must follow to achieve self-improvement and self-acceptance.

There are very well trained workers, employees of The Doorway and volunteers, who sit with the clients and listen as they ask for help in deciding what those steps must be. Their response must always be to encourage the client to explore the problems verbally and find their own path to reach their stated goal. The client must find the courage to answer his or her own questions and find from within themselves their own path to reach their goals. For the volunteers or the staff councillors to offer them a suggestion as to how they could progress toward the goal they have chosen for themselves would defeat the purpose and power of the program. It would simply create a new dependency, generating answers to which they have not committed themselves. Lastly, participants sign their own plan as an agreement with themselves, a legal document, identifying each youth as a contractor working with The Doorway to build a unique project - a new life for themselves and a business plan to guide them going forward. And, like any contractor, they will be paid a small amount of money, legal cash, each time they come to report and re-examine their goals and the progress they are making toward achieving each goal. At the end of each month, they do a review of their goals and what they want to take forward with them to build on for the next month.

This is a unique approach to homelessness among young people in Calgary. It acknowledges and relies on the many services available to young people, but it is up to the clients, the contractors
themselves, to access and use those resources in their quest to leave the street for a more productive, socially acceptable and personally satisfying life for themselves. They find jobs, they locate and rent their own accommodation, and, for perhaps the first time in their lives, they become tax paying members of society.

Yes, The Doorway is a charity that needs public and private donations to survive. But it appears to me that it’s probably one of the most cost effective and unique investments in young homeless people in the city. And it is internationally recognized as such by the Pacific Rim Research, The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and in 2012, William Julius Wilson Award, which The Doorway won, with Marilyn Dyck named as co-recipient.

In closing, let me leave you with this thought. Marilyn tells me that The Doorway has the capacity in their facility to work with 120 young people. From June 1, 2014 to May 31, 2015, however, they had only 84 young people in the program, of whom 68 per cent, just slightly less than the usual 70, progressed to sustainable work and a safe place in which to live. We are not short of young people who need and want this program, but The Doorway simply did not have the funds to take in all the candidates who might have been accommodated if more of us had contributed just a little more cash, tax deductible of course.