Calgary

Housing homeless in hotels would take too long due to suicide prevention retrofits: minister

Alberta's minister of community and social services says placing homeless Calgarians in hotels rather than larger facilities is problematic because the hotel option is too slow given the need for suicide prevention retrofits.

Rajan Sawhney says overflow shelter spaces like Telus Convention Centre was the fast pandemic response

This makeshift shelter space in the Telus Convention Centre will house clients from the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre to free up space in its main shelter. (Rajan Sawhney/Facebook)

Alberta's minister of community and social services says placing homeless Calgarians in hotels rather than larger facilities is problematic because the hotel option is too slow given the need for suicide prevention retrofits.

"Getting hotels ready does take a lot of time because hotels do need to be retrofitted," said Rajan Sawhney. 

"When you're dealing with vulnerable clients, you have to make sure that you have suicide prevention measures in place. That entails removing curtains and anything that has a string attached to it including shower curtains, making sure there aren't long cords attached to any of the TVs, removing light fixtures that have chains."

She said the hotel option was about the same price as housing people in the Telus Convention Centre — the option chosen for the Calgary Drop-In Centre's clients announced on Monday — and that the province also considered venues like the Max Bell Centre.

"We were working with the city to look at different locations and know that we looked at the Stampede grounds and that wasn't a viable solution because they didn't offer a 24/7 presence there," said the minister. 

Time, however, was the major consideration, she said. 

Costs not known

Sawhney said she could not provide a cost breakdown at this time, and said the details of the Telus Convention Centre deal are still being finalized.

She also could not say how much of the $25 million pledged by the province to help homeless populations during the pandemic will be spent in Calgary. 

Mayor Naheed Nenshi has said he still prefers the city's initial program to house Calgary's homeless in hotels, but that the city was overruled by the province.

"I think it would be a very positive mental health intervention in tough times to have your own shower, to have your own door," he said on Monday.

Nenshi's office staff said on Tuesday that while they were not part of the conversation on choosing hotels and couldn't comment on the requirements mentioned by Sawhney, those concerns were never brought to the office's attention.

The Calgary Hotel Association did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Sawhney said the province worked with local agencies and the city to find the right solutions for local circumstances, and that some Calgarians are housed in hotels already. 

Alpha House hotel

Calgary's Alpha House has about 40 people in a hotel, but the shelter's executive director said the agency didn't have to make any of the alterations cited by the minister. 

"We were fortunate that as part of our grant agreement with the government we did get social supports in place," said Kathy Christiansen. 

"We do have two staff on site 24/7 doing case management, doing check-ins with folks. There is ongoing involvement, so that mitigates other risks that would require alterations to a building, perhaps."

Christiansen said Alpha House is looking at the hotel operation as an opportunity to transition clients out of shelters. 

"We're trying to find the gift in all of this for people, and that is, how do we ultimately reduce our numbers for a longer term," she said. 

"I'm not sure if that's possible, but that's the lens that we're looking at it."

Other locations

Sawhney said the convention centre is providing food and security as part of the makeshift shelter and that there will be shower facilities provided in a loading area. 

The city's other major shelter, the Mustard Seed, has already acquired space in the First Alliance Church in southeast Calgary. 

Other hotels are being worked on at the moment in order to be used for isolation, according to Sawhney. 

About the Author

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca. Signal contact upon request. CBC Secure Drop: www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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