Not enough space, nowhere to go: Mustard Seed clients question pandemic response

Some residents of the Mustard Seed are complaining about cramped conditions, fear of illness in large sleeping areas and being left with nowhere to go during Calgary's cold spring days. 

Southeast church offers overflow space but clients say they're on their own all day

The Mustard Seed opened a new shelter space in a southeast Calgary church in order to reduce the population at the main shelter in the Beltline, but some clients say not enough is being done. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Some residents of the Mustard Seed are complaining about cramped conditions, fear of illness in large sleeping areas and being left with nowhere to go during Calgary's cold spring days. 

The shelter was quick out of the gate to open an overflow space — in the First Alliance Church in southeast Calgary — to spread out its clients during the pandemic.

But each morning those residents are bused back downtown to eat at the main shelter and then sent outside for the rest of the day. 

And while some of the clients at a higher risk from COVID-19 are allowed to stay in the Beltline shelter through the day, according to Mustard Seed CEO Stephen Wile, the rest are not.

"You know, everyone from the prime minister is saying if you don't feel safe, stay inside, but they just don't care," said Jame Kaerne, who has been staying at the Beltline shelter. 

"They kick us out every day for eight hours a day."

Forced to rent an office

Kaerne says he is unable to spend the day on his feet due to a previous injury — a broken back — that landed him on AISH.

He says he has spent his money on renting an office space for $600 a month in order to have somewhere to rest and use a washroom during the day. 

Most of the city spaces, including the library, malls and Plus-15s, are all shut down, leaving others without the resources to rent a space on their own. 

Kaerne says he feels stuck, with landlords unlikely to rent during the pandemic and under new rules that stymie evictions. He also says that, regardless, there is nowhere to go, like a computer room, to search for rentals. 

"I'm doing this because I need to have a bathroom available," he said, citing one of the side-effects of his injuries. 

"I need to have, you know, warm. Cold air, it makes my back spasm and it's extremely painful and I can fall from that."

Not enough physical distance

Kaerne says there is not enough physical distancing at the shelter, and when residents are bused between the church and the Beltline facility, they are crammed into the vehicle. 

He says people are on edge and unable to sleep, lying in fear as another resident coughs nearby.

"They're just doing enough to make it look they're trying to do something," he said. 

Another resident, who is staying at the First Alliance Church space and who CBC News agreed not to identify because he feared repercussions for speaking out, says they are loaded onto buses to the Beltline shelter starting at 4:30 a.m. and then left with nowhere to go. 

He says the older people are finding it particularly hard amidst the cold snap.

In addition to having nowhere to go during the day, he says there are no laundry facilities at the church and that everyone has "got stinking clothing."

CEO acknowledges situation isn't ideal

The Mustard Seed CEO says the agency is doing what it can to maintain physical distancing, including meal times where only 100 are allowed to eat at once. 

Wile acknowledges the situation is far from perfect and that there are issues with busing clients downtown. 

"Well, we certainly try to space them. Right now, I would say that we're not necessarily providing that one or two metre distance," he said. 

Wile says the city offered the shelter 100 hotel rooms to use for their clients, but the Mustard Seed declined the offer. 

"There's a lot of other unknowns if we took hotel rooms. One of the major problems we have with our client population is bedbugs," he said. 

"And so if they go into a hotel room, there's a good chance that those rooms are going to get infested with bedbugs. There's also some questions around respect for the property in the hotel room. That sometimes becomes a challenge for some of our clients."

Where to go?

As for where clients of the Mustard Seed might go for the day?

"To be honest, they're just basically wandering the streets," said Wile. 

"It's really unfortunate that we're getting such a late spring, because typically we would, we would just, you know, the weather would be nice enough that it wouldn't bother them to do that, but this is a cold week this week."

Keeping people inside and spaced on transportation isn't the only issue where rules are different for the homeless population.

The province also provided an exception to physical distancing rules when it comes to sleeping arrangements at overflow shelters, allowing beds to be one metre apart instead of the recommended two metres.

Alberta's chief medical officer said on Wednesday that was the result of a balance between the need for distancing and the need to keep people off the streets.

Hotels vs. shelters

That's not good enough for NDP Leader Rachel Notley, whose party has been attacking the UCP government over its handling of homeless Albertans during the pandemic. 

She says her party favours housing them in hotels. 

"We believe these people, these people in Alberta who do not have homes, are entitled to the same dignity and the same rights as other Albertans. And we also believe that the kind of setup that we see these folks living in right now is bound to create a concentration of infections and disease spread."

On Monday, Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said one of the reasons the province opted to go for overflow shelter spaces over hotel rooms, as favoured by the city, is because it would take too long to retrofit hotel rooms for suicide prevention measures.

Alpha House, a shelter near downtown Calgary, has already moved clients into a hotel and says it did not require those retrofits. 

The Calgary Drop-In Centre, meanwhile, started accepting clients at its new facility at the Telus Convention Centre on Thursday with cots set six feet apart. 

If you are staying in a shelter and would like to get in touch, contact Drew Anderson in confidence at


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.