Innovation-TogetherSubmitted by: Patricia Jones, President and CEO, Calgary Homeless Foundation and Karen Young, President and CEO, United Way of Calgary and Area.

Over a year into the pandemic, more people are seeking help from the social sector than ever before. According to Distress Centre Calgary, suicide-related crisis contacts were up 41 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019, while over 2,900 people in Calgary are without a home on any given night. With sinking revenues and increasing demand, 78 per cent of charities are turning to innovation to better reach clients and achieve their missions.

For those of us working in the social sector, Canadian Innovation Week reminds us that we need to stay open to experimentation if we want to help those we serve. Innovation doesn’t come with a master plan or a polished strategy. More often than not, it is a set of seemingly random activities that develop into something greater and more permanent, because people and organizations are willing to try things out together.

United Way of Calgary and Area, for example, has created a community impact framework based on research, agency collaboration and feedback, as well as partnerships that arose in an impromptu fashion during the pandemic. This framework will improve the system of care in Calgary by generating more resources for big-picture initiatives, and providing better access to services and supports for people most at risk.

Rapid Care Counselling was a pre-existing program funded by United Way, among others, that included counselling from Catholic Family Service, an agency United Way has been funding for over 40 years. During the pandemic, and as part of the city’s new mental health and addictions strategy, Calgary Homeless Foundation adapted the program with the help of key agency partners to best serve those experiencing homelessness. Sometimes, being able to book a counselling appointment at 3 a.m. can be enough to help you hang on, and this program allows people experiencing homelessness to meet with a counsellor — online or in-person — within three days.

United Way’s AdaptiveYYC, which won the New Normal Ninja award in April 2021 for innovation during the pandemic, is an app that delivers free workplace mental well-being training to organizations who need the support — including agencies on the front-lines — to respond to the pandemic with resilience.

COVID-19 has created more willingness and urgency to test new ideas, and this past year has been rich with projects that demonstrate this new attitude. In March 2020, Calgary Homeless Foundation — with government, HomeSpace Society, The Alex and CUPS — launched the Assisted Self-Isolation Hotel, a 100-unit facility that allowed people experiencing homelessness to self-isolate. From March 2020 and February of this year, 212 individuals and families living at the site have since found their way home.

In partnership with the Ministry of Seniors and Housing and community leaders, United Way is also bringing community-based, senior-serving organizations together around a common vision of healthy aging in the community, and to help seniors live in their own homes as long as possible. Seniors have been greatly impacted during the pandemic, often isolated and without access to critical supports. Healthy Aging CORE Alberta is an online knowledge and learning hub that supports the bigger objectives of the initiative, galvanizing co-operation and co-ordination to enhance the health and well-being of Albertan seniors.

This is only a small snapshot of the work being done. Now more than ever, the social sector has stepped up to find new and powerful ways of working together for shared outcomes, enabling people in need to continue finding the supports and services for their well-being. For those of us working in the social sector, remember: our community needs us. Let’s not worry about who is doing what. Let’s roll up our sleeves to get the work done, for everyone.

Originally published on 05/20/2021 by the Calgary Herald.