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City, social agencies bolster cold weather help for Calgary homeless

Calgary social organizations working with the City of Calgary to warm unhoused citizens during the recent cold snap said they’re making progress.

The Calgary Homeless Foundation, The Alex Community Health Centre, the Calgary Drop-In Centre and Calgary Transit provided an update Sunday. It come as overnight temperatures are expected to rebound to just below freezing.

On Dec. 20, Calgary city council approved $750,000 in emergency funding to help Calgary social agencies improve services as temperatures began to plunge.

At that time, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the city needed to play the convener role to coordinate efforts. They have been working with these social agencies for the past few weeks.

“The city realizes that sometimes we don’t have the expertise, but we do have the ability to bring the different organizations together,” she said.

Since then, Calgary has been hit hard by bitter cold with overnight lows well below minus 30 Celsius. Still, hundreds of Calgarians have remained outside. In a recent tweet, the Calgary Drop-In Centre said they’ve yet to reach their maximum capacity of 715 people overnight.  During the recent cold, they’ve averaged 617 guests each night.

“Shelters have capacity to accommodate those in Calgary experiencing homelessness,” said Sandra Clarkson, Executive Director, Calgary Drop-In Centre.

“Shelters offer not just a warm place to sleep at night but additional supports including, food, washrooms, showers, health care, mental health and addiction support, with the goal to transition to long-term housing. We are here to help.”

‘Dynamic and complex challenge’

The DI put out a tweet over the weekend with an FAQ around why people might not access shelters.

Matt Nomura, VP with the Calgary Homeless Foundation said it’s a complex challenge. There’s no one answer to addressing some of the barriers.

He said they’ve boosted resources to meet unhoused Calgarians where they’re at to provide services. They’ve supported the opening of three additional warming centres a fourth is in the works, Nomura said. They’re providing a centralized location where outreach teams can access supplies.  They’re also determining supplies outreach teams need while out and having them delivered.

“There is little doubt that the issue of homelessness is the top priority for our community and partners and especially for those that are experiencing homelessness,” he said.

“There is space available for those needing to access shelter.”

Joy Bowen-Eyre, CEO of the Alex, said their team of social workers, nurses and peer-support workers are actively working in east Calgary to provide support. They’re also offering client warming, food, COVID vaccines and health care services.  She said they don’t want people falling through the cracks and are safe from the elements.

“This is a city that prides itself on stepping up when people are in crisis,” she said.

Nomura said this is an effort that requires the entire community to pitch in. To that end, the Calgary Homeless Foundation will be releasing granting guidelines. Any organizations wanting to help the winter response effort can apply.

Calgary Transit changes

Beginning Monday (Jan. 10), Calgary Transit peace officers will be working with the Downtown Addictions Outreach Program (DOAP) team members. They be encouraging homeless Calgarians found along transit routes to access shelter services.

“At the same time, we have to understand that there is a general sense of safety required across the system for the traveling citizenry,” said Sam Hope, Safety and Security manager with Calgary Transit.

They will also be phasing in targeted closures of the Southland, Heritage and Anderson LRT stations between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m.

Hope said LRT stations aren’t set up to house citizens. There are no public washrooms, no other amenities and no supervision in case of incidents arising.  They will have transit and social services on site during certain hours to provide help in accessing emergency services.

This plan was already in the works prior to and incident in late December, when peace officers cleared out the Sunalta LRT station. It wasn’t done in direct response to those events.

Hope said teams on the ground have been working with homeless individuals to learn more about the barriers to accessing emergency shelters.

At the same time, we have to understand that there is a general sense of safety required across the system for traveling citizenry.

COVID in shelters

Some homeless advocates have said many of Calgary’s vulnerable population are worried of the congregation of people during the most recent COVID-19 wave. That’s kept them away from shelters, feeling safer outside.

The situation appears under control at the moment.

Clarkson said there are contingency plans in place at the Drop In Centre in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We feel that we are doing everything we can to ensure we’ve got appropriate and adequate staffing,” she said.

“Some of those efforts are redeploying staff from less essential programs into the emergency shelter.”

Clarkson said they currently have one active client case, and that person has been transferred to the assisted self-isolation site.  They do have a rigorous testing and vaccination program in place, she said.

Bowen-Eyre said of the 33 people they’re assisting, nine were COVID positive. They also have an assisted isolation site.

Mayor Gondek said the safety of citizens is the top priority.

“Calgarians who are unhoused and in positions of vulnerability need safe spaces for shelter, and all Calgarians need to feel safe on our transit system,” she said.

“This multi-agency, coordinated approach will provide the highest and best outcomes for all Calgarians. I am grateful to our partners who are working together with each other and the City of Calgary under very challenging circumstances.”