A homeless shelter in downtown Calgary is working to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 after five people staying there tested positive for the virus.
The Calgary Drop-In Centre said that as of Wednesday more than 140 clients and 100 staff have been tested on-site since the shelter reported its first case a week ago.
“We are all continuing to work diligently to keep our shelter staff and client population protected best we can, and we thank the community for their kindness during this time,” the shelter, one of the largest in North America, said in a statement.
People are waiting for test results in a hotel that’s being used as an assisted isolation site, as well as at the Drop-In Centre’s satellite shelter.
An Alberta Health Services guidance document issued to shelters in July states beds, mats or cots should be spaced two metres apart head to toe, if space allows.
However, acknowledging space limitations, a minimum of one metre is allowed in non-outbreak situations.
Before the pandemic, the Drop-In Centre housed an average of 725 people a night. Now its capacity is 300.
The shelter is open only to people who have been inside since Aug. 8.
Chaz Smith, who runs the Be the Change YYC homeless outreach team, said he met 10 people who were turned away last week.
“It increases, if you have any mental-health symptoms, that sense of abandonment,” he said.
“[It] increases the anxiety, the depression associated with not being able to have a safe place to go or access to food, water, washrooms, showers and essentials of life.”
He said it was inevitable that there would be an outbreak at a shelter, given how the virus spreads, and that the two-metre distancing rule should apply like in most other indoor spaces.
Edmonton’s city council voted Wednesday to ask the provincial and federal governments for money to buy financially distressed hotel and apartment buildings and convert them to short- and medium-term transitional homeless accommodations.
Mr. Smith has sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and others asking to make vacant hotel rooms available as temporary homeless shelters.
“We plead with you to make a long-term plan that will address the impending colder weather. We hope you will act sooner than later,” Mr. Smith wrote.
“Housing our vulnerable population in hotels ensures everyone has a space to self-isolate, eliminates the danger of spreading the virus through the sharing of sinks and washrooms, and will also help the hotel industry cut losses due to COVID’s negative effect on tourism.”
The Alberta government announced $48-million in new funding last month to support shelters and community organizations that serve those without homes.
The province has not specified how the money is being divvied up or how many spaces it could create.
Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney has said overflow shelter sites at convention centres in Calgary and Edmonton won’t be reactivated as demand increases in the winter.
The province wound down the temporary shelters at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Edmonton Expo Centre this summer, and Ms. Sawhney said alternative overflow options were being explored.
Mr. Smith said although those on the street are again able to panhandle with the reopening of businesses and a return of people returning to downtown Calgary, the priority is finding somewhere warm to sleep.
“I just don’t want my clients to have to start saying I have to break into places again to stay warm. It’s survival instinct. If we don’t provide, that’s what they’re going to do.”
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