For the first time in nearly a year, Frederick Weller has a space of his own.
Mr. Weller recently moved into Sunalta Lodging House, a 30-unit apartment building run by Alpha House in southwest Calgary, after renovations were sped up to get more people out of the shelter system, where the COVID-19 risk remains high, and into housing.
“I like it. It’s good for me. At least I’m not out in the cold,” said Mr. Weller, who is in his 70s.
After a broken shoulder and substance use led him to lose his own place last summer, he turned to Alpha House Society’s emergency shelter and detox program. When the pandemic arrived, he was moved to a hotel room, an overflow site set up to help reduce capacity at Alpha House’s shelter. The Sunalta Lodging House, where he is now, is transitional housing – a stopgap until Mr. Weller can secure a permanent place to live.
Agencies in Calgary that serve the homeless population are working to keep vulnerable people such as Mr. Weller safe from COVID-19, including expanding efforts to move people into housing. They say the pandemic has underscored the need for more permanent housing.
“One thing that’s become glaringly obvious is that we can never go back to the crowded conditions of prepandemic times,” says Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, one of the largest homeless shelters in Canada.
The Drop-In Centre had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its clients, Ms. Clarkson says, all of whom have fully recovered, while eight cases have been identified at Alpha House.
Before the pandemic, the Drop-In Centre in downtown Calgary sheltered about 650 people a night, but that capacity has been reduced to facilitate physical distancing. It’s now aiming for that number to be 230 people a night, Ms. Clarkson says. To achieve that, the centre opened two temporary satellite shelters, giving more space for people to follow public-health advice to stay two metres apart. Ms. Clarkson sees such efforts as a short-term fix.
“The solution here is housing. It’s not hotels, it’s not other shelters, it’s housing,” Ms. Clarkson says.
Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, says there have been “heroic efforts” across the country by front-line organizations to protect people who are homeless from the virus. But those measures, as good as they are, Mr. Richter says, “are still not nearly as good as someone being in their own home.
“The only known cure for homelessness is a home, and the best protection from COVID-19 is also a home,” he says.
To that end, the Drop-In Centre recently made a public plea – the first time it’s done so, Ms. Clarkson says – for landlords with vacant affordable rental units costing between $300 to $900 a month.
Ms. Clarkson says the appeal, made in April, has been quite successful. More than 30 landlords have reached out and Drop-In Centre staff are now working to match clients and landlords.
The Drop-In Centre ultimately aims to house 250 people as soon as possible, ideally before the end of the summer, Ms. Clarkson says.
This focus on housing is not new, but it’s been ramped up during the pandemic. “Since March 1 [to May 11], we have been able to house 87 people into permanent housing in community, despite the distraction of all of the crisis-management work,” Ms. Clarkson says. Typically, about 25 to 40 Drop-In Centre clients are housed each month.
A major challenge in Calgary to housing people remains a shortage of affordable housing. Bernadette Majdell is the CEO of HomeSpace Society, a non-profit housing developer and property manager that owns Sunalta Lodging House – where Mr. Weller is staying – as well as 26 other buildings across the city, totalling 550 affordable housing units. Another four properties, with a combined 190 units, are currently under construction.
“As we move forward and we look at the bigger picture, we know that we're just under 3,000 people in the homeless population. And so, there’s been a lot of talk, saying nobody should go back to shelter when this is all over. Well, I can tell you, we don't have 3,000 affordable housing units that have support,” Ms. Majdell says.
In response to the pandemic, HomeSpace ensured the Sunalta Lodging House could open sooner than scheduled and also helped five families staying at an emergency shelter quickly move into vacant units in late March.
Additionally, HomeSpace has taken on the property management of Calgary’s Assisted Self-Isolation Site. In Calgary hotel rooms, vulnerable people who are symptomatic, test positive for COVID-19 or have been in contact with a person who has tested positive can self-isolate.
Ms. Majdell says temporary efforts to keep people safe, including the self-isolation site and the opening up of the Telus Convention Centre as a satellite shelter, emphasize the importance of permanent housing going forward.
“You’ve got community and the province having to spend significantly more money to provide temporary housing for people who don’t have a fixed address,” she says.
“We know we’ve been saving when people are safely and securely housed. I think what we didn’t understand is the opposite of the other extreme of that: how much it would cost us if they aren’t. And that’s really what’s come to light during this situation.”
Ms. Madjell worries the demand for affordable housing in Calgary will rise because of the pandemic and its accompanying job losses. That’s concerning, she says, considering Calgary was short about 15,000 units of general affordable housing before the pandemic hit.
Back at the Sunalta Lodging House, Mr. Weller is settling in.
With the building’s earlier than anticipated opening, HomeSpace staff hurried to source bed frames, mattresses, bedding and towels from closed furniture stores, while Alpha House staff quickly set up a transitional housing program, including 24/7 staff support.
It’s “been kind of a whirlwind,” says Shaundra Bruvall, Alpha House’s communications and fund development co-ordinator. Alpha House began moving people into the building April 30, taking extra precautions to keep clients and staff safe during the moves.
Mr. Weller likes that his new room has a balcony and that there are other residents in the building he knows from his stays at Alpha House. “We’ve been through it all,” he says.
But he is already looking forward to his next stop: a permanent place of his own. Alpha House staff are currently helping Mr. Weller to secure permanent supportive housing.
“It’s good here, but I’m going to be out eventually. I’m going to get my own place,” he says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.