Photo by Anna Radchenko

In the shelter world, a crisis intervention worker (CIW) is essential. CIWs are integral to Camrose Women’s Shelter Society (CWSS) operations, and the high level of quality service and care would simply not be possible without this small and mighty group. Each individual brings a background of specialized education and experience, sculpting a diversely skilled team.

Program coordinator, Devona Gibson explained the importance of necessary crisis intervention work during a recent interview, emphasizing that specific elements and tools are required for a survivor’s recovery from violence and trauma. Daily systemic barriers and red tape challenges create daily hurdles, and at any given moment, a CIW faces adversity in their promise to ensure client safety. At the same time, they must advocate for courage and strength in order for the client to move forward in their journey.

A wealth of skill and talent exists in the tightknit team at CWSS. Individuals that are hired as CIWs often specialize in nursing, mental health and social work.

“We place a priority on individuals with a background in psychology, sociology, and addictions education, while weighing shelter and human service experience,” says Gibson. “We have a nurse on staff as well as people who have experience with addictions services within the community.”

Personality and character are just as important as the practical components when considering what it takes to be a CIW.

“They have to live in a world of grey and be adaptable to sudden and unforeseeable interruption of plans,” says Gibson. “Dealing with conflict and managing shiftwork while offering compassionate, trauma-informed care is essential to this work, so they really have to be adaptable on many levels.”

While providing crisis support to meet critical client needs, a CIW works behind the scenes to ensure regular household chores in the shelter—the client’s temporary home—are completed, so clients can stay focussed on progressing.

“It is important that the client has a clean, safe space with the sense of home,” says Gibson, “in order to put their life back together and move forward.”

Another heavy issue that CIWs assist with is housing. Often, a call to the shelter means that one is seeking safety in the quest to flee domestic violence. Finding safety also means they are at risk to become homeless. Unfortunately, this is often the result due to limited, affordable housing in the community.

Homelessness is an undesirable alternative to living with abuse. Where this is a solution to a worse situation and another crisis in itself, the real danger is returning to the abuser and toxic environment—once known as home—when safe accommodations are unavailable.

In addition to weighing and differentiating between solutions and risks, personal wellness has become a risk of rising concern for CIWs.

“Our clients arrive with complex needs, even outside the realm of homeless or fleeing an abusive situation,” explains Gibson. “We assess people with significant mental health and addictions issues, where the client is unsure of how to obtain support for compounding concerns.”

Safety is a number one priority in respect to shelter admissions, and ultimately an overall concern for everyone, including shelter employees.

“There is always that overriding sense of keeping everyone safe,” says Gibson. “Initially, callers are assessed to determine whether their admission would be safe for the people who reside at or work at the shelter. Any safety risk may lead to an admission request being declined.

“We will turn people away if they are using meth or if they are intoxicated, which actually prevents us from being able to complete a proper screening for adequate assessment. We have also had to turn people away because the abuser knows the shelter location. Safety concerns have to be considered at every level.”

After all of this, what is in it for a CIW?

A driver for joining this line of work may relate to human connection, a common trait among CWSS’s CIW team.

“Seeing clients succeed and sharing in those successes are motivators,” says Gibson. “Every so often, a client hurdle is overcome because we were able to find income support or locate housing for them and their children. These are real reasons for our team to celebrate.

“For some clients, just being in a safe place for up to three weeks is probably what they need. If we have been able to provide that, then we need to shift our view and see that as the success.”

This collaborative team rotates through a demanding schedule of shiftwork. Two or three CIWs are needed on an average weekday to meet client needs. In a team that currently consists of five full-time, one part-time and five casual employees, CIWs often look to each other for support in an effort to avoid the high risk of burnout in the frontline service of this position.

“They can debrief with each other or any member of our leadership team at any time,” says Gibson. “Permanent full or part time employees have access to our employee assistance program. The shelter also provides specific training to help each person build a personal self-care toolbox, helping to recognize when breaks are needed.”

Networking is important for CIWs in this aspect. They lean on one another when weight the team carries becomes burdensome.

“They find more informal support through other programs and educational networks,” says Gibson. “Those outlets allow a feeling of connectedness to the bigger work of the shelter. It can be easy for them to feel isolated when it is particularly busy or stressful in the shelter, so those connections are really important.”

Despite rising challenges, CWSS’s exceptional team of CIWs has sought out solutions to help clients move forward in their healing journeys. This diverse team has adapted a collective perspective and purpose, aspiring to redefine success by focusing on individual needs and goals of each person who approaches the shelter.

Aligning with CWSS’s vision, CIWs live in the heart of compassion, practicing and displaying empathy for others, while replenishing their own depleted supplies through self-care training methods and a network of peer support. Critical functionality and safety at the shelter is possible because of diligence and quality work completed every day in the life of a CIW.