Calgary

How some of Calgary's homeless prepare for the coming cold

With winter approaching, emergency shelters in Calgary are nearing full capacity each night. Most of the city's homeless try to get a spot, but there are some who prefer sleeping outside in makeshift shelters, even as temperatures drop.

Shelters are reaching capacity, but some people prefer to stay outside

Dave Hauriel plans to continue living outside near the Bow River for months, if not years. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

With winter approaching, emergency shelters in Calgary are nearing full capacity each night. Most of the city's homeless try to get a spot, but there are some who prefer sleeping outside in makeshift shelters, even as temperatures drop.

Dave Hauriel, 48, is one. He's been homeless — by choice, he said — for the past 15 years. Since May, he's been living in two large tents hidden in the bush near the banks of the Bow River.

Hauriel goes to the Calgary Drop-In Centre once a day to shower and charge his phone. Otherwise, he's set up to live independently. He prefers sleeping outside to heading to a shelter, which have certain rules.

"I get the freedom that shelters don't offer," he said.

Equipped with blankets insulating the walls of his tent, warm clothes, a propane gas heater and an inflatable mattress, he said he feels ready for the winter.

Hauriel said he's ready for winter. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

According to the most recent numbers from the Calgary Homeless Foundation from 2018, the city has about 3,000 people experiencing homelessness. Fewer than 100 of those are completely unsheltered — or living rough —on any given night. For some, like Hauriel, it's a choice.

Cliff Wiebe, executive director of the Salvation Army in Calgary, said that's not surprising.

"Some people prefer just to live life their own way," said Wiebe. "Shelters have quite a few people in them, if they'd rather be alone."

The Salvation Army's 80-bed shelter is averaging 92 per cent capacity right now, and Wiebe said it's not until temperatures hit –20 C or –30 C — when it's dangerous to sleep out in the cold — that some people living in tents will come inside.

Living in this way carries other risks beyond freezing.

"When people are living on the streets, some of the mental health and physical supports that they need aren't necessarily there for them," said Wiebe. "When you are housed [and] you have the supports available to you, you can live a healthier life and that's really the goal."

The makeshift shelters can also be tenuous because camping near the river is prohibited. If found by peace officers, they have up to 72 hours to vacate the scene.

Calgary lacking in affordable housing

According to the Foundations for Home report outlining the city's affordable housing strategy for 2016-2025, Calgary has 12,000 affordable housing units, or three per cent of the market. That's less than in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver, and well below the national average of six per cent.

The Mustard Seed shelter has 300 beds. The goal is to get people out of emergency shelters and into affordable housing, but it's a difficult process, says manager Andrew Gusztak. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Andrew Gusztak, the street level manager at the Mustard Seed's 300-bed shelter, said that housing is by far the best solution to homelessness, but it's also the hardest solution because of the money, zoning and community support it requires.

"It takes years, essentially, to get a housing project off the ground and then more years to create the integrity behind it with the community," said Gusztak.

Mayor-elect Jyoti Gondek has said she wants to make the issue of affordable housing one of her top priorities.

With files from Axel Tardieu

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