Chaz Smith on an outreach mission giving out food and emergency supplies. PHOTO: ERIN SWEERE

Homelessness has always been tough during the harsh winter months, but this year added extra hardships, with shelters facing decreased capacity and COVID-19 outbreaks. Fewer people experiencing homelessness are accessing shelters in Calgary, leaving them to fight hunger and the cold on their own. Outreach programs and shelters help with daily living essentials, but their common goal is to house the homeless – a need that has been highlighted as a result of the pandemic. 

Even prior to the pandemic, some of those experiencing homelessness had been reluctant to use shelters. Dino, who has been without a home for almost six years now, says he only goes to shelters once or twice a year.

“It seems like, if you don’t use it to the maximum, you’re not the priority for them. They like people who really depend on them. That’s what I think, and that’s not me,” he says.

But, many people do depend on them. Since almost 3,000 people experience homelessness throughout the city at any given time, shelters can be crowded. This year, the high volume mixed with COVID-19 has made accessing shelters even more complicated. 

“It’s a life and death sort of scenario. People have to now make the decision do I freeze outside or do I go inside and potentially risk catching COVID,” says Chaz Smith, founder and CEO of nonprofit BeTheChangeYYC

Homeless shelters have been forced to lower their capacity to accommodate social distancing. According to Smith, the Calgary Drop-In Centre, for example, would have around 1,000 people staying there during the colder months. This year, Smith says they can only have 300.

The Calgary Drop-In Center illuminated at night. PHOTO: ERIN SWEERE

The Calgary Drop-In Centre did not respond to an interview request from the Calgary Journal. However, reducing the number of beds is not an uncommon practice. Alpha House has dropped its capacity from 120 beds to 88, and in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, it will cut that number to 44. This “outbreak mode” has been activated twice already this year. 

Reduced capacity is not the only thing that has changed within shelters. There are increased cleaning procedures, employees and volunteers wear personal protective equipment, and there is a universal mask policy in place for all clients who enter. Masks are provided for those who do not already have one. 

“We don’t really experience any pushback on any of those rules. You might have to remind some folks to keep their mask on, to pull it back up over their nose, particularly if they’re sleeping,” says Shaundra Bruvall, communications and fund development co-ordinator of Alpha House. “For the most part, clients are happy to have a place to stay that is safe [and] warm, and they’re understanding of the fact that those measures are in place to protect them.”

Fewer homeless people are accessing shelters in Calgary

Despite the COVID-19 regulations and precautions, there is still a risk of transmission in congregate settings, and people are fleeing from shelters in fear of catching the virus. 

“It does look much more friendly than what it looked like previously, but I can still sympathize with people not wanting to go just because of the sheer capacity or volume that shelters can have,” says Smith.

“I mean, I don’t really particularly want to be in a room filled with hundreds of other people. Most people don’t at this point.”

This may be why shelters and organizations like BeTheChangeYYC have seen  more “rough sleeping,” — people who find shelter in stairwells, entrances, tents, under tarps and in tree-covered areas —  than they would in the past. 

Rough sleeping is a common practice in the warmer summer months. According to Bruvall, it has been increasingly obvious to those who work in this social services sector that there has been a rise in encampments or people sleeping where they typically don’t. These practices, however, become dangerous during the winter. 

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There are a variety of reasons why people choose to avoid shelters. Anxiety around COVID-19 has played a big part, but other factors such as pets and spousal sleeping arrangements can also impact someone’s decision to access shelters. Shelters are often divided by gender or do not have the space to accommodate sleeping next to a spouse, nor do shelters allow pets.

“Inevitably, people will freeze to death and die this winter outside,” Smith explains. “Logically thinking, people are afraid. They just want housing, a place where they can go and be safe. But in the meantime, we need to keep people alive so that they can be housed.”

Outreach programs

Because of this, outreach programs are an important support system for individuals who cannot access the resources that shelters provide. 

BeTheChangeYYC is among those outreach programs. Three times a week its volunteers walk the streets and alleys of downtown. So far, this winter, they have averaged helping around 50 clients a night. They provide essential basics such as food, water, clothing, hygiene products and harm reduction supplies. Volunteers also hand out emergency supplies like tents, tarps, rain ponchos, socks, jackets, toques, mitts and gloves, as well as program referrals to access housing, detox, and emergency shelters. The support is especially important when people aren’t visiting the shelters that usually provide those kinds of supplies and services. 

BeTheChangeYYC volunteers preparing bagged meals and emergency supplies for their outreach mission. PHOTO: ERIN SWEERE

BeTheChangeYYC currently has 26 active outreach workers, most of whom are social workers, rehabilitative counsellors or addiction specialists. All positions, including Smith’s, are voluntary, which means every donation goes back into the community. 

Smith says that outreach also creates a sense of community for people living on the streets. Community, in a sense, can act as a support system in and of itself.

“It brings us a snapshot of what a community can look like. It might not be the full thing with all the answers, but it definitely is a piece of it,” Smith says. 

Affordable housing programs

Another important resource that outreach brings is referrals to housing programs. COVID-19 has demonstrated that having a home is a key part in keeping yourself safe and socially distanced from others. But thousands of Calgarians a year find themselves without a place to stay and feel safe. 

To ease the stress and provide a safe space, the Calgary Homeless Foundation has partnered with several organizations across the province, as well as the Government of Alberta, to create a program called the Assisted Self-Isolation Site

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we wanted to ensure that there was a place for individuals who had no fixed address to go and have a safe space to isolate. As you can imagine, a shelter is not the place for that,” explains Mathew Nomura, vice president of Calgary Homeless Foundation. 

This facility helps those who are showing symptoms or have received a positive COVID-19 test to isolate in a safe space with security and food, and is staffed with healthcare professionals and case management workers. 

Rather than discharging people in the ASIS back into homelessness or a shelter, the Calgary Homeless Foundation and its partners have created a program to transition those experiencing homelessness into a more secure living environment. 

“They would go into this transitional housing and receive some supports and programming, and we’d be looking for more permanent supportive solutions for themselves,” says Nomura. 

Since its launch in May, the transitional housing program has seen 154 individuals enter, and 77 have transferred into supportive housing. An additional 90 have enrolled through ASIS and have since exited into either supportive or individual housing. 

Alpha House has also used the pandemic as an opportunity to push for transitional and rapid housing. 

“Rapid housing means identifying, supporting, and moving folks into housing programs or placement opportunities as fast as possible,” explains Bruvall. “We are always working with people on housing, but rapid housing I guess refers to allocating more of our resources to making it happen quickly.”

One option for rapid housing is converting empty buildings into makeshift shelters. Twenty-eight per cent of Calgary’s downtown core has been vacant for the majority of the pandemic. Smith believes a reasonable solution to temporary housing is to use these empty towers and hotels as emergency shelters. Giving people their own room, bathroom, phone and  bed would slow the transmission of COVID-19 amongst this vulnerable population. 

BeTheChangeYYC volunteers walking the streets and back alleys of downtown Calgary. PHOTO: ERIN SWEERE

“There’s no lack of space for people to be indoors. It’s just a lack of action, creating that space and making it accessible to this population. I wish that we would have, as a society, given these vulnerable individuals the space that we have an abundance of in our city,” explains Smith. 

Nomura, however, says the homeless need more than just their own room. Because homelessness is a community that often includes people who have trauma, substance misuse issues, and poor mental health, support systems need to be put in place for people to thrive. 

“It’s the complexity of the human being and what’s happened to them that they find themselves in that situation. You want people to be successful, you want to help people rebuild and recover. And that does come with program supports,” says Nomura. 

“It brings back the question that although there is space, how do we share that space so that people have supports through programming to address their situation appropriately so that they have a path out of homelessness and that they’re not on their own.”

Both Nomura and Bruvall also believe that the homeless should be put into affordable housing or housing programs. 

“The purpose of an emergency shelter is in its title, right? It’s an emergency. The longer that emergency shelters exist, the less they become emergency, and the more they become how somebody accesses any type of shelter,” Bruvall explains.

Nomura sees the same problem, asking, “What’s normal about people living in a shelter? Is that the normal that we want?”

The path to housing is often a slow process. There has been an average increase of 308 new affordable housing units per year since 2001. However, Calgary needs between 2,000 – 2,500 new units a year to keep up with the demand. 

Dino has been on the housing list for quite some time without seeing any results.

“At first I would go multiple times in the same week, right? And then I slowed down and pretty much gave up,” he says.

But the crisis caused by the pandemic could lead to changes that will help people like Dino.

“We have an opportunity to really examine the issues as they relate to homelessness, and how do we address those issues together as a community at all levels of government to ensure that shelters are not the normality of what we should expect in Calgary,” says Nomura.

“Shelters, if ever, should just be a brief, one-time occurrence, if that was to ever happen. They should not ever be where a person lives. Housing is the solution. Housing with recovery supports is the solution.”