Fearing lives lost, Calgary homeless outreach team calls for immediate additional winter shelter
Edmonton opened downtown 24/7 homeless shelter last month, but Calgary's plans still uncertain
The president of a Calgary street outreach team says new shelter space needs to be opened immediately now that cold weather has hit the city while new COVID-19 outbreaks spread through existing shelter spaces.
Chaz Smith, founder of the not-for-profit Be The Change YYC homeless outreach team, says the organization holds a memorial for those who have died in the cold each year.
"My fear is that number could double or triple," Smith said. "That more lives could be lost because of the lack of action happening here."
The Alberta government announced $48 million in funding for shelters and community organizations serving homeless people amidst the pandemic in August, an extension of $25 million announced in March.
Last month, Edmonton used that funding, along with federal funding, to open a temporary 24/7 downtown shelter expected to accommodate 300 people overnight and 400 people during the day.
But Calgary's discussions with the province on overflow sites has been going on for months, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said last week.
"It's actually been a bit frustrating, because the provincial government has been very exacting in what they want," Nenshi said. "And last I heard, we still haven't been able to find a location that meets their criteria.
"We don't have much time, especially with the accelerating COVID numbers."
Jerry Bellikka, press secretary to the minister of community and social services, said there are still spaces available at shelters throughout Calgary.
"For example, utilization at the Calgary Drop-In Centre is 67 per cent," he said in an email. "Other sites range from 40 to 88 per cent."
Bellikka said the shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre was a City of Edmonton initiative, referring questions on similar initiatives in Calgary to the City of Calgary.
Doctor says colder months require additional space
Dr. Richard Musto, a Calgary retired public health officer who has worked with the homeless population during the pandemic, said shelters will need additional space this winter.
"It's harder to sleep outside when it's very cold, and it's cold enough, in fact, to be dangerous to your health," he said. "And secondly, of course, COVID persists and has been surging in the last many days."
Musto said he was surprised that additional shelter space hadn't yet been approved, given the months of efforts to acquire it by organizations and advocates.
"They deserve to live with dignity and to have a space that allows them to maintain their dignity, and also be safe from this infection," he said.
"We owe it to them to help them out and ensure that their risk of acquiring COVID-19 is no greater than it could be."
Drop-In Centre outbreak
Sixteen cases of COVID-19, 15 clients and one staff member, have been identified at the Calgary Drop-In Centre since Nov. 5, according to the shelter. On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said two cases have also been identified at Alpha House, and five cases at an Alpha House transitional housing unit.
Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, said the new cases represent the third outbreak at the facility since the start of the pandemic.
"During our first two outbreaks, we were … relatively effective at containing it, and we're hopeful we'll be at a similar situation now," she said. "But there are just that many more people out there who are positive.
"So it's a higher likelihood for everyone, let alone vulnerable people, to be exposed."
Clarkson said the shelter has been looking for overflow space in preparation for the winter since June, and said it's in final negotiations to locking in a site right now.
"I can't disclose the location at this point in time, but we're hopeful to have an overflow location so we don't have to turn anyone away," she said.
With files from Julie Debeljak, Lucie Edwardson and Scott Dippel