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Distress Centre Calgary / 50 Stories  / 50 Stories Part 5: From drugs to distress

50 Stories Part 5: From drugs to distress

Image: From a 1972 newspaper.

At the end of 1971, the Drug Information Centre (DIC) continued at its original location, operating 24/7. Education, crisis support and counselling regarding drug issues remained the main goals. Policy decisions were arrived at through group discussion. A grant of $2,000 from Junior League supported the library, with the rest of the funding coming from government sources.

Analysis of street drugs was no longer regularly performed. As a worker noted: “The RCMP has conveyed to me in very lucid terms that they would not hesitate to bust me were I ever to be found holding.”

Volunteers in the early ’70s.

Don Bruce, Jack Oakley, Ken Low, and Norris Nash, the original social worker, had all moved on or returned to the organizations from which they had been seconded. Dr. Stew Clark from U of C Pharmacology remained in the Information and Research position.  Dr. Bryan Tanney noted:

“Stew Clark was one of the others who gave credibility from the hard science point of view. If they needed a talking head to maybe say drugs were not as bad as they said they were, he would provide that kind of background. Canadian Mental Health, with Ron La Jeunesse, was also an agency that I think provided a lot of cover and support.”

Counselling was only offered on the premises. Confidentiality was key, but made statistical data hard to come by: “When dealing with predominantly young volunteers in a street-oriented agency, handling crisis situations, only limited record keeping can be expected.”

Moving into the old YMCA

On May 1, 1972, the DIC moved into a larger space in the basement of the old YWCA, at 223 12 Ave. S.W.  Rent was $150 per month and the building was a centre for a variety of youth-oriented agencies.

''There were only four phones and a small room near the entrance to the building, right at the foot of the stairs. I’m not even sure the door was locked. A bit spooky.'' - Judith Ryan

Judith Ryan, a volunteer, remembers the new setting:

“There were only four phones and a small room near the entrance to the building, right at the foot of the stairs. I’m not even sure the door was locked. A bit spooky. Trying to redecorate with no budget; a dingy sofa and we just bought a cheap painting. There was another ‘hang out room’ down a few steps that they could see from where they were answering the phones.”

Emil Roessingh noticed the changes:

“We moved to the YWCA, and we were there maybe a year and a half before we got funded by United Way. That’s when there was really a hard push for us to become the crisis centre.  We had lost all the people I had worked with, and also a lot of our volunteers who were more interested in youth activism and political activism, and the whole drug scene, but not in people who were suicidal because they had mental health problems. That was a totally different kettle of fish altogether. So, the whole scene totally changed. We ended up getting a new Co-ordinator who was Penny Cairns.”

From drugs to distress

By June of 1972, there was a full complement of staff and the service became more traditional. Staff had more formal qualifications, and the Centre responded to a broader range of client concerns.

A new Policy and Procedure Manual was produced, complete with references to building use (not a crash pad or drop-in centre), removal of stoned volunteers, and banning drugs on the premises. Volunteers were in charge of operations – incredibly efficient as the cost to the DIC was just 58 cents per hour per volunteer. A staff resource person was always on call, often from home.

A volunteer filing call cards in the ’70s.

Volunteers and staff were “directed to use the third person approach and refrain from discussing or even revealing personal drug taking experiences or the lack of.” Police were to be called when volunteers could not deal with destructive or violent clients, but ‘”ambulance drivers have to report, so try not to tell them anything or transport yourself.”

Allen Garrett spoke about the 65 active volunteers and the approach commonly used: “A lot of the things we did seem to fall in the category of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Today, what we tried to accomplish and the methods we used might seem a bit off the wall and a tad outlandish, to say the least.”

Penny Cairns provided an update in 1973. The stated mission was “to provide people with the information they need to make rational decisions about drug use and to help people who have had a hard time; to help people with communication problems.”  Services included: counselling, crisis intervention, information, treatment, “The House” (subject of the next story) and the Alternative Centre, a 6-month project with Artist’s Workshop to help clients expand life skills.

''A lot of the things we did seem to fall in the category of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Today, what we tried to accomplish and the methods we used might seem a bit off the wall and a tad outlandish, to say the least.'' - Allen Garrett

Bruce Martin, the street worker, kept in touch with the drug-using population, liaised with police, and provided general public relations.  At one point he met with volunteers and staff, to make a plea for a more professional environment:

“The Drug Centre has become primarily a drop-in centre, dealing centre, and shooting gallery, with a somewhat dubious crisis intervention role tacked on as an afterthought… Aside from the hassle with the regulars, the DIC has the physical appearance of a garbage dump… I want to see some changes NOW. If we want to be a drop-in center, it is going to be very difficult to serve as a crisis intervention center.”

A memo from Bruce Martin to all DIC staff in October 1973 on the “Present State of Affairs.”

New training was added for volunteers in 1974. It occurred over 6 days, 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm, and included topics like:

  • what to do with freaks
  • the safe
  • the placebos and the ‘good stuff’
  • dealing with cops
  • trying not to get into personal drug use, especially with clients

At that time, 50 volunteers provided 720 hours of service a month and were included in decision making.  In the 39 months to September 30, 1974, there were 17,347 client contacts recorded, representing 8,000 different people, as well as 6,617 information contacts, 186 speaking engagements to 4,520 people, and 2,440 crisis interventions. One social worker did phone interviews, house calls, and individual or group counselling.

Handling a wider range of problems

A volunteer answering calls in the ’70s.

The first neutral evaluation of the Centre was done in March 1975 for provincial Health and Social Development Minister Neil Crawford. Running more than 100 pages, it included history, current operations, conclusions and recommendations. The best summary is as follows:

“With this client-centered openness, it was not long before the Centre found itself being called upon to relate to a much wider range of problems than those related to drug usage. Initially there was some resistance to this wider range of activities by the Centre’s staff, however, this role is now seen as the normal course of the Centre’s activities. Drug related problems presently represent a minority of the Centre’s activities…The decision to handle a wider range of problems than those related specifically to drug usage not only resulted in a much greater acceptance and use of the Centre’s resources by its clientele, but also reflected the fact that drug abuse was not an isolated phenomenon, divorced from greater social problems.”

1975 brought a new name, The Centre, with both a general crisis line and a separate drug crisis line.  The slogan, “a place to call when things go wrong,” was still accompanied by the long-haired hippy purple logo, stating “everything is groovy.”  It was more commonly known as the Drug Centre/Distress Center, or DC/DC.

Jointly funded with $200,000 from United Way, AADAC and Preventive Social Services, the DC/DC had a full time Director, five counsellors, a volunteer program co-ordinator, and three part time clerical staff. Going into 1976, it served as a community crisis centre, “handling emotional crises which run short of a major psychiatric upheaval on a 24-hour basis.”

As noted in the 1975 report, “the need for the agency is as valid as when proposed.” It had just grown and evolved, likely far beyond the dreams of that first visionary committee.

Distress Centre is sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

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