Additional supports roll out Thursday to help unhoused Calgarians stay warm, access services

Frigid temperatures in Calgary continue to drive more people to emergency shelters.  (Dave Gilson/CBC - image credit)
Frigid temperatures in Calgary continue to drive more people to emergency shelters. (Dave Gilson/CBC - image credit)

The City of Calgary and its community partners are rolling out additional warming spaces and supports Thursday in an effort to help unhoused Calgarians find refuge from the cold.

The added measures come as some city shelters report hitting full capacity at times this month, with frigid temperatures driving more people indoors.

Rowena Browne, chief development officer at the Mustard Seed, said they stretched above their 370-person limit this week to ensure no one was left outdoors.

"Our team on the front lines are figuring out ways to get people somewhere to sleep," she said.

"All of our partners are experiencing just an influx of increased numbers amongst the homeless population for individuals, families, the elderly population."

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

Starting Thursday, the city will add 200 warming spaces at five locations throughout the city, available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., creating a total of 335 spaces at 10 locations.

The additional warming locations will remain open until March 31.

Free emergency shelter shuttles will be available between 8:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. until Friday — when the cold snap is expected to ease — between select LRT stations and the Drop-In Centre/Alpha House.

They'll be staffed with a peace officer and members of the city's Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership (DOAP) team. The city says running more emergency shuttles will be dependent on weather throughout the winter.

In a media release, the city also said 24-hour emergency shelters continue to operate seven days a week, with occupancy rates across the system at about 80 per cent.

"We want to ensure that anyone who needs help can get it," said Mayor Jyoti Gondek in the release.

The DOAP team operates its own 24/7 mobile support program, locating individuals experiencing homelessness or addiction and transporting them to the appropriate service.

Shaundra Bruvall, communications and program manager with Alpha House — which runs the DOAP program — says the team is on track to provide more transports this year than ever before in its 17-year history.

Submitted by Alpha House Society
Submitted by Alpha House Society

It made nearly 27,000 transports last year, serving about 4,000 individuals.

"We do add some teams on the road, particularly overnight, where we are trying to get people to come to shelters," she said.

The shelter run by the Alpha House Society also hit its 120-person maximum this week.

Availability of support

The city received criticism last month for waiting until December to add more warming spaces, rather than opening them when a certain temperature is reached.

The Calgary Homeless Foundation helps to manage the city's cold weather response.

President and CEO Patricia Jones says they're always monitoring to ensure there's enough warm spaces for vulnerable people in the city.

"We would have expanded earlier if we needed to," she said in an interview on The Homestretch.

"December 1st to March … usually are the coldest months of the year. So we just want to rev up and make sure we're available for all Calgarians during those time periods."

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

The foundation started offering the added winter supports for unhoused Calgarians last year after the city approved new funding. They programs were well used, Jones says, but they did not hit capacity.

Calgary's Drop-In Centre in the city's core continues to have space for those who need it, but Nathan Ross, manager of marketing and communications with the centre, says they're seeing needs grow.

This week, 672 people used the 1,028-capacity shelter for an overnight stay. The facility had averaged about 583 people a night throughout early November.

"Being able to make sure there are no turn-aways due to the cold is a major priority for us," said Ross.

"We know that there is a community that chooses to rough sleep, and we respect that their autonomy in that decision lies with them. We do get concerned though, because … exposed skin does have that risk of freezing, which leads to frostbite."

Mobile warming stations

The city says it is also bringing additional support directly to vulnerable populations.

The Salvation Army, in partnership with the city and the Calgary Homeless Foundation, will begin operating a mobile warming station beginning Thursday.

Each morning, they'll load up a refurbished truck with coffee, hot drinks and food to drive to different spots around the city. There, they'll set up pop-up tents with heaters.

"It's not a place to necessarily come and hang out for a long time, but it's a place to come out, come and make a connection with our team," said Cliff Wiebe, executive director of Calgary's community services with the Salvation Army.

"We get to know their names, where are they at, where they're staying for the night, can we help them in any way."

They'll also have tablets onsite, connected to the Calgary Homeless Foundation system, to input data from people who want to connect with other services.

Transport vans will bring people to a shelter should they choose.

Submitted by Salvation Army
Submitted by Salvation Army

The mobile sites will be set up in one location over the first week, expanding to two locations each day afterward, running from early afternoon to early evening.

"We'll be around quite a few CTrain stations and other areas in the city where people experiencing homelessness are kind of gathering," Wiebe said.

For those wishing to donate to the city's shelters, winter clothing such as hats, mittens and coats, as well as underwear, towels and moisturizers, are much-needed items. Food donations and volunteers are also needed.

If you see someone who needs help, the DOAP team can be reached at 403-998-7388. If someone is in serious distress or non-responsive, call 911.