'Terrified': Calgary homeless leaving shelters after fresh COVID-19 outbreaks

·3 min read

CALGARY — Outbreaks at two shelters have left Calgary's homeless terrified to come in out of the cold for fear of catching COVID-19, says a group that helps people living on the streets.

Be The Change YYC provides food, water, blankets, hygiene supplies, tents and tarps three nights a week in the city's downtown.   

Founder Chaz Smith said virus outbreaks at the Calgary Drop-In Centre and Alpha House have left the homeless facing a difficult choice.  

"Do you freeze or do you potentially risk catching COVID?" Smith said in an interview with The Canadian Press.  

He said the group helped 47 people Sunday night after some snow and cold winds hit the city. One person in particular stood out.   

Smith said a man broke down into tears when faced with the possibility of going to a shelter.  

"It's never fun when you have a man in his 40s just break down and start crying and say, 'I don't want to go into the shelter' because he's so terrified," he said.  

"He really, really didn't want to go."  

The individual was eventually persuaded to go to a shelter along with four others.   

"They were just so cold they didn't have any other choice."   

Alberta Health revealed Monday that the two main shelters in downtown Calgary were dealing with fresh COVID-19 outbreaks. Alpha House has about 80 beds and the Drop-In Centre has 600 spaces.

On Tuesday there were 14 active cases at the Drop-In Centre, two cases at Alpha House and an additional five at the Alpha House transitional housing.

"We are taking these outbreaks extremely seriously. Health screening of all staff and shelter clients is underway and on-site testing is being conducted," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health.  

The head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness said the Alberta government and the City of Calgary need to take action to make sure the outbreaks are handled properly.  

Tim Richter said things are already dire for the homeless and shelters are stuck between "a rock and a hard place".  

"It's November. It's snowing. The weather is awful and people are fleeing the shelters because they're scared of catching COVID-19 — and with good reason," Richter said.  

"Sleeping outside at any time of the year in Calgary or anywhere in Canada is dangerous, including everything from the weather to fire to violence or an overdose," he said.  

"You're dealing with people that are especially vulnerable to COVID given their health conditions and the way they're forced to live. People are going to die if they haven't already."  

In an interview, Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said Calgary has sufficient shelter space for its homeless population. She said there are over 1,100 spaces that have been filled between 65 and 80 per cent over the last couple of months.

The Drop-In Centre is finalizing plans for a second building to handle overflow in the coming months, she said. 

"We're expecting the numbers to go up, and we want to make sure we have space to accommodate that."

Smith and Richter have been pushing the Alberta and Calgary governments to provide spaces in vacant hotels for the homeless.  

"It's sad and it's frustrating and it's potentially deadly," Richter said. "In the absence of leadership, how are we going to come up with a plan in this city in a way that keeps everybody safe?"

Sawhney said it's not that simple to shelter vulnerable individuals in hotels.

"It requires a very different service delivery. You'd have to remodel. You'd have to have staff in every room with those individuals, who have mental-health issues and addictions," she said.

"It's not as easy as it sounds."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published November 10, 2020.

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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press