Calgary

Telus Convention Centre opens as shelter for up to 300 homeless individuals

Some members of the local homeless community are moving to the Telus Convention Centre in downtown Calgary on Thursday as it opens as a temporary shelter amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.

Initial plan to house the homeless community in hotels was jettisoned by province

The Telus Convention Centre will host up to 300 homeless individuals a night for at least the next two months. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Some members of the local homeless community will move to the Telus Convention Centre in downtown Calgary on Thursday as it opens as a temporary shelter amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new shelter, operating for the Calgary Drop-In Centre, will be open 24/7, providing service for up to 300 homeless individuals.

The opening of the temporary shelter was necessitated by a lack of space at Drop-In Centre to allow for physical distancing.

"We've been messaging with the clients and helping them understand why this is so important and why this is in their best interest," said Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Drop-In Centre. "Not just for themselves, but for our staff as well, so we can continue to provide them the supports that we do every day."

The Drop-In Centre said its staff will screen individuals for COVID-19 symptoms before they are moved to the temporary shelter and will continue to monitor symptoms after relocation.

All cots inside the temporary shelter have been separated by six feet (about 1.8 metres), and handwashing stations are placed throughout the venue.

Meals will be served directly to the homeless population, negating the need for individuals to cluster in lineups.

Hotel option

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had advocated for housing homeless in hotels, but he said the city was overruled by the province.

Rajan Sawhney, Alberta's minister of community and social services, previously said that placing homeless Calgarians in hotels would take too long given a need to retrofit hotels with suicide prevention measures.

"You know, I don't know that there is any perfect solution in this instance," Clarkson said when asked about the hotel option. "We are focused on getting people out of the building and placed in other locations as quickly as possible, and this met those requirements."

Other organizations, such as Alpha House, have already moved some of their population into Calgary hotels. 

Calgary's Mustard Seed, the city's other large shelter, has partnered with First Alliance Church to provide beds, while Edmonton has set up its Expo Centre as an overflow location.

The temporary shelter at the Telus Convention Centre will see 50 individuals moved in Thursday, with a goal to move about 50 per cent of the Drop-In Centre's current population by next Thursday.

'It's not ideal'

Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said people with nowhere to go are more likely to have underlying health concerns that make them more susceptible to the virus and do not have the means to self-isolate if they are sick. 

Provincial governments have been behind the curve in addressing the issue, he said. Many shelters have reported that they are ill-equipped with personal protective equipment and are understaffed.

The convention centre shelter is the third-best option behind apartment housing and hotels, he said.

"We're in the throes of a crisis and at this point we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said.

"It's not ideal. Nothing in this is ideal. But at this point anything that will ... make people safer than they were I think is good."

With files from Mike Symington and The Canadian Press

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