Calgary homelessness support agencies to launch 'real time' counselling service

·3 min read

Calgary's homeless population will soon have faster access to mental health support thanks to three social agencies teaming up to launch a "real time" counselling service.

The aim of the pilot program, Rapid Care Counselling, is to serve the specific needs of people living in shelters.

Patricia Jones, president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, one of the partners behind the launch, says the pilot is hoped to address some of the root issues that contribute to homelessness. It's also hoped to serve as a gateway to finding and maintaining housing by providing counselling and support to those experiencing homelessness in a timely manner over the phone or in-person.

"Ultimately, those are people at the other end of the line that we're trying to serve who are … literally fighting for their lives many days," she said.

"So we can't afford to not respond in real time."

The pilot is a collaboration between the CUPS Shared Care Mental Health program and Catholic Family Service's Rapid Access Counselling program. Jones says the pilot connects people to a system of 22 agencies that will have consistent, standardized service.

Usually, wait times for these services can be anywhere from 24 hours to six months, Jones said. A person would typically call a line, talk to an intake worker, get information and an assessment, and then meet with a counselor.

Now, with this pilot, Jones says counselling appointments can be available within an hour to three days. Intake can happen 24/7 with booking counselling online or people can visit CUPS in person if they don't have access to internet, Jones said. It comes at no cost to the clients.

Pandemic catalyst for organizational change

Jones says people living without a home or in emergency shelters have been disproportionately affected by measures to contain the COVID-19 virus.

There are about 621 individuals experiencing homelessness awaiting housing on Calgary's triage list — including singles, families and youth, according to a joint news release for the pilot project. About 78 per cent of those, it says, have identified mental health challenges or concerns.

"I often say, people living without a home are not otherwise OK. Always, something else is in play. Things like childhood trauma, intergenerational issues, addiction, physical abuse, racism, mental health disorder, loss of employment — and the list goes on," Jones said.

"Add a pandemic and, you know, not having a home — mental health issues are going to skyrocket. And the feedback we've gotten from the community agencies that we work with say that has happened."

Jones says there's an "incredible appetite" among community agencies, sponsors, the city, the province and federal government to work together to develop an integrated system.

It's hoped the pilot will make services for those experiencing homelessness more readily accessible, especially amid the pandemic.

"So the people we serve don't have to manage our system. It's our job to manage our system so they can access it more easily," Jones said.

"Sometimes a crisis offers that opportunity to speed those things up."

The pilot is set to start Feb. 15.

Jessica Cope Williams, co-CEO of Catholic Family Service, said in a statement that the joint project puts the "right mental health support in front of the right people at the right time."

"Compassionate care is timely care," she said. "This shifts the burden of accessing the right supports from those in crisis to organizations doing the work to create seamless service access."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.