‘Peril or Promise’: Long-term solution needed to help homeless people in Alberta’s cities


The twinkle of festive red, green and gold lights in Alberta’s two major downtowns is little comforting to thousands of homeless people trying to survive another cold spell in the winter.

On a freezing December night in Calgary, shoppers carried gifts along the downtown light rail corridor, passing dozens of people clustered in doorways or near heated bus shelters.

Three people, surrounded by shopping carts, used boxes and an umbrella to try to stay warm. It was -28 C with wind chill.

Homeless shelters are almost full but open their doors to everyone when the temperatures get unbearable. Yet some choose to stay outside.

Dakota Casey said it was safer this way.

“I had food stolen, my phone was stolen from my pocket. I lost money and people took my boots while I was sleeping, my backpack under my head, ”he told The Canadian Press.

Casey and her husband, Nathan Lunn, know there are dangers to sleeping on the streets too, and take turns staying awake to stay safe.

Relentless cold is a constant threat. Casey was recently treated for frostbite on his hands.

A tent donated by the nonprofit relief agency BeTheChangeYYC will slightly improve life outdoors, Casey said.

“Right now it’s just survival… if I’m sleeping in a tent for Christmas and have to use motor oil to warm me up, you know what?” That and my husband is all I really care about having.

Chaz Smith, founder of BeTheChangeYYC, was himself once homeless. His team has helped more than 15,000 people this year with heating and emergency supplies.

“It’s extremely dangerous, especially if you’re a little wet,” Smith said. “They are people too, and they deserve housing. They deserve warmth. No one deserves to be here and have frostbite and amputations and die outside in the cold.

Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said the homeless sector has been beaten in the past two years and now the Omicron COVID-19 variant poses a greater risk.

He said homeless camps were on the rise across Canada and there were more and more people without housing. Crises are also worsening as housing affordability deteriorates and the number of drug overdose deaths increases.

We’re at the point of “peril or promise,” Richter said. Either the various threats continue to fuel homelessness, or communities and multiple levels of government keep their promises to rise to the challenge.

In October of last year, Ottawa announced $ 500 million for rapid housing in 15 Canadian cities, including Edmonton and Calgary. It showed how quickly assistance can be provided, Richter said.

The two Alberta cities will also receive funding from the provincial government. The province announced in November that it would spend $ 21.5 million to alleviate capacity issues at homeless shelters and women’s shelters.

This month, Calgary City Council approved $ 750,000 in emergency funds to help the homeless.

The commitments must not only be maintained but broadened to urgently address the growing crisis, Richter said. Otherwise, the peril will prevail.

In Edmonton, freezing rain that swept through the city in early December turned green areas where homeless people had pitched hard, icy tents.

In the bush of a park in a river valley, a tarp hung over a fallen tree branch. The ice made it difficult for a Boyle Street Community Services outreach worker to climb the hill to check for potential occupants.

No one was inside when DougCooke took off one side of a tent. Someone’s belongings were strewn across a foam mattress and in the surrounding snow. Clothes, cigarettes and food packages were frozen to the ground.

There were similar facilities downtown. A man with a blanket draped over his head sat near the air vents expelling hot air.

Jared Tkachuk, senior director of programs at Boyle Street, said COVID-19 had reduced space in shelters, leaving hundreds unable to find refuge, including an influx of people who were first homeless afterwards. having lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The risk of dying outside is high and some lives have already been lost, if not by freezing and then by fires started to warm up, Tkachuk said. The gangs also attack the camps.

“Homelessness can be solved with housing. If these people have four walls and a roof over their heads… they will be okay, ”he said.

“But a lot of the people that outreach teams work with, who sleep outside for years… (they) are actually looking for housing. They are looking for a community.

It’s not just an urban problem, said Dean Kurpjuweit, executive director of Mustard Seed, a nonprofit that supports the poor and homeless in Edmonton.

He said the pandemic had revealed a lack of funding and services in some jurisdictions, especially rural areas.

In Wetaskiwin, southeast of Edmonton, this shortage delayed the opening of a heated shelter while dozens slept in an outdoor camp.

“I am happy with the bandages that have been put in place, but it will not solve the problem in the long term,” said Kurpjuweit, who is concerned that increased support during COVID-19 may wear off as a semblance of normality returns.

“If our homeless population across the province doubled, if not tripled, what are we doing to reverse the trend? ”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 22, 2021.

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