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Frank Dyke was one of the first clients to move into the Veterans’ Building three and a half years ago. He is one of 15 clients who live there and pay 30 per cent of their income for rent, plus $50 for utilities.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

It is 10 a.m. on a summer morning and Frank the Newf is sipping a beer in his third-floor apartment, telling tales from his fractured life.

The litany of hurt includes a broken ankle, a stroke, a suspicious lump removed from his colon, along with doctors telling him he has cirrhosis of the liver. That's what you get when you're an alcoholic and live under a Calgary bridge for three years. Or maybe it was five. He's not sure.

What is certain is that if he hadn't been rescued by Alpha House workers he would have been … "Dead," says Frank Dyke, the 67-year-old Newfoundlander who served in the Canadian Armed Forces. "I couldn't have taken another year on the streets. … Alpha House people checked on me every day. They helped me get this place."

This place is a tucked-away 16th Avenue apartment unit known as the Veterans' Building. Owned by the Calgary Homeless Foundation, it is managed by Alpha House, a downtown operation that works with the homeless on multiple levels.

At a time when the economic downturn threatens to push back the city's 2018 target to end chronic homelessness, a University of Calgary study has found Alpha House's pioneering approach is keeping clients like Mr. Dyke – people who would otherwise end up in a hospital or jail – off the streets.

Calgary, with a population of 1.2 million, now has more than 3,500 people living on its streets, the highest total in Alberta. Alpha House executive director Kathy Christiansen believes it was a confluence of factors that allowed homelessness to take root in Calgary and grow exponentially.

"The need has really resulted out of no investment in affordable housing, redevelopment in the downtown and rental rates being really high," Ms. Christiansen says. "The pulling back of federal programs and social cuts … it all had an effect."

Alpha House was originated in 1981 by a group of civic-minded directors who wanted to provide safe shelter for those living on the street. The shelter opened its doors in 1982. Since then, it has withstood Calgary's great flooding of 2013, plus a fire in March that forced 120 people out of the shelter and left one man dead.

Traditionally, homeless shelters have been dry, refusing to take in those who were inebriated or high. Alpha House was the first non-profit organization to have both a shelter and a detoxification centre in the same building. (The Calgary Drop-in Centre offers a similar one-stop approach. Having a detox centre allows for followup attention when the addict awakens sick or hungover.)

The study by the university's school of public policy, entitled Alternatives to Criminalizing Public Intoxication: Case Study of a Sobering Centre in Calgary, was completed in June. Researcher Alina Turner found Alpha House clients experienced a 92.7-per-cent decrease in the average number of days they spent in jail compared to the year before they intersected with Alpha House. Dr. Turner also found there was a 62.6-per-cent decrease in the number of times clients were hospitalized and a 50-per-cent drop in the use of emergency medical services.

"Holding [jail] cells should be a last resort for those publicly intoxicated people who cannot safely or effectively be helped through a sobering centre," Dr. Turner wrote. "But for those who are suitable for Alpha House's program, the effects appear to be highly encouraging."

The Calgary Police Service also reported a "notable" decrease in the number of people it sent to jail for public intoxication.

Alpha House is pro-active in getting people off the streets, rather than awaiting a visit from a client. Through its Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership, or DOAP, team members respond to calls for assistance from the police, emergency services, hospitals, family members and friends.

Trained for emergencies and how to defuse stressful situations, DOAP picks up the inebriated individuals and brings them to Alpha House instead of leaving them to be arrested and taken to jail. The pickups and the drives are dubbed transports. It's a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week task helping people grapple with their addictions.

"[DOAP] averages over 1,600 transports a month," said Adam Melnyk, the outreach and housing location manager for Alpha House. "That's just over 50 a day."

Tom Hanson, acting Inspector for Calgary Police District 1, said "people like to see firefighters and EMS. In our case, we're not always well received. … The DOAP team has good knowledge of the homeless because they meet with them on a regular basis. They're our go-to partner on this."

This is Alpha House on a typical start to the day: Inside the warehouse-like centre, 31 men are lying on mats on the floor with no pillows or blankets. Others are lying on the far side of the room. Virtually all of them were brought here high on drugs or alcohol and allowed to sleep it off.

On an upper floor, 30 beds are available in the detox centre, with another 12 available for clients transitioning from their addiction to the outside world.

Frank the Newf was one of the first clients to move into the Veterans' Building three and a half years ago. He is one of 15 clients who live there and pay 30 per cent of their income for rent, plus $50 for utilities. His military service involved peacekeeping during the 1970s territorial dispute between Cyprus and Greece, plus a stint in Bolivia. He says he was bored so much of the time that he and some of his fellow soldiers turned to drinking.

After his transfer to Calgary's Armed Forces Base, Mr. Dyke chose to leave the military and found work as a house painter. By then, he had gone from being a weekend drinker to an everyday drinker to the lost soul Alpha House was looking to save – and did.

"I did it to myself. Nobody forced me," Mr. Dyke said of his life choices, one of which now includes cutting back on beer. "I enjoy every day. I make people laugh. … I have this place. I'm at peace."