Volunteer Chaz Smith, right, distributes aid to a homeless man in Calgary on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, amid a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Smith says people on the streets are choosing the cold rather than going to shelters where there are outbreaks of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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

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

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.

—- Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, accompanied by Premier Jason Kenney, in March when the pandemic had just started in Alberta. On Wednesday, Kenney said COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed in three phases in the province. Photo by Government of Alberta
COVID-19 vaccine available to Albertans in January – distributed in 3 phases

Vaccine won’t be widely available until the fall of 2021

The G.H. Dawe Community Centre in Red Deer is getting a twinned ice rink, spray park and other upgrades as part of the 2021 capital budget. (Advocate file photo).
Red Deer city council approves $43.3 million upgrade to G.H. Dawe Centre

In a 7-2 vote, the majority on council felt it’s about time

Olds College received 10 Angus heifer calves, donated by The Canadian Red Angus Promotion Society. (File photo)
Olds College and TELUS to develop new agriculture technologies

TELUS Agriculture is investing $1 million in the Olds College Smart Farm.… Continue reading

Const. Jason Tress leaves Red Deer provincial court. An RCMP officer, whose name is under a publication ban, testified Tress sexually assaulted her at a party in 2012. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Former Red Deer RCMP officer denies sexually assaulting colleague

Former Const. Jason Tress took the stand in his own defence on Wednesday

A new public washroom, proposed for downtown Red Deer, was tabled in the city’s 2021 budget discussions so more questions can be answered about the proposal. (Advocate file photo).
Proposed downtown public washroom is stalled in 2021 budget discussions

More questions need to be answered about the $511,500 project

Dan Cochrane, senior pastor at CrossRoads Church. Contributed photo
CrossRoads Church closes its doors for two weeks after staff member tests positive for COVID-19

CrossRoads Church made the decision to cancel in-house services for two weeks… Continue reading

Goals galore for Ronaldo, Giroud, Neymar in Champions League

Goals galore for Ronaldo, Giroud, Neymar in Champions League

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins is seen at a media availablity to introduce new pitcher Shun Yamaguchi in Toronto on January 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Jays ‘prepared’ if things pick up on free agency and trade fronts this off-season

Jays ‘prepared’ if things pick up on free agency and trade fronts this off-season

Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, left, and teammate Taylor Austin are shown during training in Whistler, B.C., in this undated handout photo. Montreal Allouettes running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is used to pysching himself up to sprint down a field, evading a crush of muscled men the entire way. But mentally preparing for his latest venture required bracing for a whole new set of anxieties. As he got ready to hop in a bobsleigh for the first time, Murray-Lawrence knew he'd be zipping down an icy track faster than cars are allowed to travel down most highways. Murrary-Lawrence, 27, is one of three CFL players who joined the national bobsleigh team after the league canceled its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Shaquille Murray-Lawrence
Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

North Carolina State defensive lineman Daniel Joseph (99) celebrates with linebacker Isaiah Moore after Moore forced a Liberty safety during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Raleigh, N.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Hyman, The News & Observer via AP, Pool
Canadian defensive lineman Daniel Joseph enjoying a banner first campaign at NC State

Canadian defensive lineman Daniel Joseph enjoying a banner first campaign at NC State

A Canadian Pacific Railway employee walks along the side of a locomotive in a marshalling yard in Calgary on May 16, 2012. CP says an investigation is underway following the release of a video showing one of the company's trains running over dozens of pronghorn antelope in southwestern Saskatchewan.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CP investigating after video shows train running over pronghorn antelope herd

CP investigating after video shows train running over pronghorn antelope herd

Bullet holes from 2014 attack on Parliament Hill to be left untouched in renovations

Bullet holes from 2014 attack on Parliament Hill to be left untouched in renovations

Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, holds a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020., to announce additional funds to improve access to safe drinking water on reserves. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Boil-water advisories at First Nations communities to remain past March 2021: feds

Boil-water advisories at First Nations communities to remain past March 2021: feds

Wilner Cayo, centre, and Frantz Andre attend a demonstration outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's constituency office in Montreal on May 23, 2020, where they called on the government to give residency status to migrant workers as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Refugee advocates criticize Canada’s decision to resume deportations during COVID-19

Refugee advocates criticize Canada’s decision to resume deportations during COVID-19

Most Read