Social Work at The Alex: Colin’s Story

It was a day like any other day for Colin. He woke up on someone else’s couch, put on the hoodie and jeans he’d been wearing for two weeks, and quietly walked out the front door. It wasn’t unusual for him to go without breakfast, or any meal for that matter. He’d been technically homeless for two years and was currently couching in his brother’s friend’s basement. Colin knew he was on thin ice with that arrangement though, since he’d gotten into some legal trouble recently. So he makes himself scarce by leaving early in the morning and returning late. It was worth it if it meant he had a safe place to sleep, and it was much better than sleeping on the street or in a shelter.

It was a day like any other day, but today Colin had an appointment with his doctor at The Alex. He’d been seeing Dr. T for a few months to get help with his asthma, and he liked going there, but it wasn’t always that way.

It was really hard for Colin to go for his first appointment at The Alex. He missed the first few because he’d had such terrible experiences with doctor’s offices in the past. He always left feeling small.

But the people at The Alex wouldn’t give up on him. For every appointment he missed, they’d call again, just as polite and welcoming as the first time, with new days and times to reschedule. Despite his anxiety and skepticism, Colin mustered the courage to make the intake appointment and he was glad he did. They treated him with respect, and they have a kitchen so they always had food.

Dr. T had been helping Colin get his asthma under control which had been a game-changer. He’d forgotten how normal he could feel when it was managed, but the medications were expensive. He had been purchasing them using money he earned from temp work, but there wasn’t much work available lately, and last week he had to forgo his meds to afford food.

Colin mentioned this while Dr. T was taking his blood pressure. She paused briefly, looked up at him, then slowly removed the cuff from his arm. “You know,” she said as she took the stethoscope out of her ears, “we actually have people here that might be able to help with that, and other things. They’re social workers who specialize in helping people get basic needs met, like housing, food, and meds.”

‘Here we go’, Colin thought as he rolled his eyes. Since he was a teenager in foster care, he had his fair share of negative experiences with the system. And when he first became homeless two years ago he reached out for help and found himself being tossed from one person to the next, having to tell his story over and over again, only to be told there was nothing they could do for him.

It was exhausting and made him angry just thinking about it. As if to hear his thoughts, Dr T. said, “They’re a little different than what people usually think about when they hear ‘social worker’. If you meet with them once and you don’t like it, you won’t have to again. Just trust me.” Colin shocked himself by realizing that he did trust his doctor, wholeheartedly. She’d gone above and beyond what a typical doctor would do with no strings attached. It was a strange, terrifying, almost child-like feeling that he couldn’t remember the last time he felt. Dr. T said she could get him in with a social worker right now, so despite his apprehension, Colin agreed. In thinking about it later, if he had to schedule an appointment for another time or at a different place, the anxiety would’ve returned, he probably wouldn’t have gone, and his whole life would’ve been different.

A few minutes later Colin was shown into a small room with a table and a few chairs. A woman stood up and greeted him. “I’m Cathy,” the woman said. “So what can we help you with today?” Colin didn’t know what to say. He felt the urge to flee but said something along the lines of “I don’t know”. Cathy smiled warmly, paused for a moment, and started asking simple questions like, “where do you live?” “What have you eaten today?” things like that. When he said he hadn’t eaten, Cathy stood up from her chair, said she’d be right back, and left the room. Colin felt frustrated suddenly and contemplated leaving, but within seconds Cathy returned, handed him a snack and juice, sat back down, and continued the conversation.

As he ate, Colin found himself answering her questions openly. He forgot how well he could focus without the nagging hunger he’d gotten so used to feeling.


times an Alex social worker helped someone access basic needs in 2020, like food, clothing, medications, and transit.

Also, Cathy had a gentle presence and warmth that made Colin feel comfortable, so he was honest in his answers. He mentioned a drug possession charge and how that had been affecting his relationship with his brother’s friend and his housing situation. Cathy was writing notes and as they talked, she mentioned a lot of things he wasn’t familiar with, like disability, financial, and housing support programs.

She noticed him getting overwhelmed, so she paused, smiled again and said matter-of-factly, “Most importantly for today, is that we get you your medication. I’ve arranged for emergency medication coverage so you can pick it up here at our pharmacy before you leave today. I will fax in your application for ongoing medical coverage and a food bank referral. I know all of this can be overwhelming and we can’t cover everything in one meeting, so if you would like we can meet again. Then we can look at your housing and financial assistance needs.


times an Alex social worker helped someone access benefits programs in 2020, such as AISH, Alberta Works, and emergency medication coverage.

“I am not here to tell you what to do. Rather, I’m here to work with you as a team towards the goals that are important to you.”

Colin felt relieved, like a weight had been lifted from his chest. His skepticism evolved into guarded optimism as he agreed to book another appointment for later that same week.

 She asked if he’d be open to another social worker joining that meeting – someone who specializes in helping with legal situations. At this point Colin was feeling dizzy, but he was going to take all the help these people offered him. Talking to them wasn’t hard. He didn’t feel like a burden, but rather he felt important and valued. Everyone he met so far seemed like they genuinely cared. So he agreed.

45 minutes later…

Colin was standing outside The Alex doors holding a few pieces of paper, his medication, a bagged lunch and some bus tickets someone handed him on his way out. It was a nice sunny day in early spring so the air felt fresh and the birds were singing. After a cold winter he was relieved he could spend his days outside without worrying about frostbite. And after many years of feeling like his life was spiraling out of control, he felt a sense of calm. He closed his eyes and let the feeling wash over him. He knew there was a long journey of hard work ahead, but for the first time in years he felt strong enough to take it on. It was a day like any other day. But today, he didn’t feel alone. He felt supported and he felt hope.