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Dire situation: City committee approves extra cold weather cash for Calgary homeless

Calgary’s Community Development committee approved $750,000 for the Calgary Homeless Foundation Wednesday to help coordinate cold weather response for unhoused citizens.

But the item spurred further discussion on existing barriers for those living rough in Calgary. In particular, trust in the groups charged with handling Calgary’s homeless was in question.

Last week, there was a call for warming stations for unhoused Calgarians as winter temperatures dipped. Further, Mayor Jyoti Gondek condemned the removal of an encampment outside the Calgary Drop-In Centre. That spurred an emergency meeting of stakeholders.

“It’s something that’s been deemed a cleanup, which is not acceptable,” the mayor said at the time.

“That is not how we characterize looking after people in positions of vulnerability when we take down the only home they have. I have indicated that that is not acceptable to this council.”

Dana Lyons, president and co-founder of Street Sisters Society, told the committee Wednesday that when they go out on Monday nights, of the 75 people they see in the downtown, 50 of them will be sleeping outside.

“This situation, in our opinion, is quite dire. People are losing limbs. We have seen that week to week,” Lyons said.

She said front line groups like theirs have trusting relationships with these Calgarians.

“There is an underlying, and growing underlying problem, with these vulnerable folks not accessing shelters,” Lyons said.

Chaz Smith with Be The Change YYC, said outreach teams have high trust with the population.

“We meet people in an equitable way on their terms as real people. And so, when these systems are created that are warehousing people, it creates that inherent distrust,” he told committee.

Open shelter spots

Matt Nomura with the Calgary Homeless Foundation said there’s ample space to provide people shelter overnight right now. He said there are 1,506 spaces across the system.

“We have found, in partnership with our outreach teams, in moments of extreme (cold) a lot of effort is put into bringing these people to safe places where they can stay safe and warm overnight,” he said.

He said a coordinated effort is needed to take people based on their choice of locations.  

Lyons, however, said there are reasons the unhoused aren’t accessing the shelter spaces. It can often be a safety issue, particularly for women.

“This growing concern of distrust amongst this population is something that probably needs attention now,” she said.

“One of the questions I have is, if this (plan) fails, because already we’re seeing failure in the system, even though there’s great effort by these organizations, we’re seeing this lack of trust, what then?”

What’s the plan for today?

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said fundamentally the $750K to find cold weather solutions was a good plan.  He hoped that it planted the seed for longer-term solutions, breaking down the barriers and providing more options.

“There’s a couple issues that I’m struggling with, and it’s a simple one. It’s what if it drops to minus 30 next week? What if it drops to minus 30 by the holidays? What if it drops to minus 30 in January?” Walcott asked.

“Because part of the frustration that I’m experiencing today is that I actually have not heard what our strategy for keeping people warm this winter is, given the barriers that exist.”

City administration said they do have emergency plans in place to manage extreme cold and other emergency situations. They also said that much of this money, if approved by council, will go to addressing immediate needs right now.

Councillors unanimously approved the recommendation to provide the cash to the Calgary Homeless Foundation. They also said the overarching matter of unhoused Calgarians would be discussed at an upcoming strategic meeting of council.

The item will come for final approval at the next meeting of council. Some further details may be fleshed out in the next couple of weeks.

“We just have a little bit more to do and I’m excited for the next opportunity we have to have this conversation in a little bit more depth,” Walcott said.