'Terrified': Calgary homeless leaving shelters after fresh COVID-19 outbreaks
'Do you freeze or do you potentially risk catching COVID?' says advocate
Outbreaks at two shelters have left Calgary's homeless terrified to come in out of the cold for fear of catching COVID-19, says a group that helps people living on the streets.
Be The Change YYC provides food, water, blankets, hygiene supplies, tents and tarps three nights a week in the city's downtown.
Founder Chaz Smith said virus outbreaks at the Calgary Drop-In Centre and Alpha House have left the homeless facing a difficult choice.
"Do you freeze or do you potentially risk catching COVID?" Smith said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
He said the group helped 47 people Sunday night after some snow and cold winds hit the city. One person in particular stood out.
Smith said a man broke down into tears when faced with the possibility of going to a shelter.
"It's never fun when you have a man in his 40s just break down and start crying and say, 'I don't want to go into the shelter' because he's so terrified," he said.
"He really, really didn't want to go."
The individual was eventually persuaded to go to a shelter along with four others.
"They were just so cold they didn't have any other choice."
'A rock and a hard place'
Alberta Health revealed Monday that the two main shelters in downtown Calgary were dealing with fresh COVID-19 outbreaks. Alpha House has about 80 beds and the Drop-In Centre has 600 spaces.
"We are taking these outbreaks extremely seriously. Health screening of all staff and shelter clients is underway and on-site testing is being conducted," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health.
"The risk of spread to this population is a reflection of the large community spread that we are seeing and another reminder that we must protect each other."
The head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness said the Alberta government and the City of Calgary need to take action to make sure the outbreaks are handled properly.
Tim Richter said things are already dire for the homeless and the shelters are stuck between "a rock and a hard place."
"It's November. It's snowing. The weather is awful and people are fleeing the shelters because they're scared of catching COVID-19 — and with good reason," Richter said.
"Sleeping outside at any time of the year in Calgary or anywhere in Canada is dangerous, including everything from the weather to fire to violence or an overdose," he said.
"You're dealing with people that are especially vulnerable to COVID given their health conditions and the way they're forced to live. People are going to die if they haven't already."
'Absence of leadership'
There was no response to a request for comment from Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
But in an email to Smith, Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said the government has provided millions of dollars to shelters and community organizations helping the vulnerable.
"We will continue working with shelter operators, municipalities, local stakeholders and Alberta Health Services to … ensure the health and safety of vulnerable Albertans," said Sawhney.
"I am pleased to report that most shelters in Calgary have found alternate locations for expanded shelter operations."
Smith and Richter have been pushing the Alberta and Calgary governments to provide spaces in vacant hotels for the homeless.
"It's sad and it's frustrating and it's potentially deadly," Richter said.
"In the absence of leadership, how are we going to come up with a plan in this city in a way that keeps everybody safe, because the shelters are all left to their own devices right now?"