“Dying with Dignity”

Calgary is one of the only major cities without a dedicated homeless palliative care program; these organizations want to change that.

By Krista Sylvester | September 2, 2021 |12:11 am

Violet Stonechild was suffering with lung cancer and didn't have a place to call home. Eventually she was given palliative care through a city program, helping her quality of life.

Photo: HomeSpace Society // Submitted

At 77 years old, Violet Stonechild was living on and off the streets of Calgary, diagnosed with lung cancer and seemingly resigned to die without palliative care. 

She was basically homeless. 

“Well, not homeless… I’d get a place with room and board, get kicked out or they raise the rent. You know, things were turning bad from bad to worse.”

That’s when she found refuge in Murray’s House when Calgary’s Allied Mobile Palliative Program (CAMPP) connected her with somewhere safe to spend her final days, and her condition has stabilized with proper care. 

Murray’s House, in South Calgary run by The Sharp Foundation, is one of only two palliative care beds in Calgary that cater specifically to the homeless in the city, according to organization executive director Stephanie Milla. The other is located in The Clayton in Bowness run by Alpha House. 

“One thing that we find very interesting and almost frustrating is the fact that every major city in Canada right now has a specialized palliative program,” she says, adding they hope to expand the program but need funding. 

“Demand in Calgary is quite high, and we know that there’s a need, but we don’t seem to have enough beds to meet that need. So oftentimes, we’re getting referrals from different parts of Alberta but we just don’t have a place for them in Calgary.” 

Built and operated by the HomeSpace Society, these apartment complexes weren’t designed for hospice care, but are better than the alternative. 

What is needed to move forward. 

HomeSpace Society spokesperson Emily Campbell says the goal is to obtain four more palliative care beds in a building located at 2404 50 Street in the southeast community of Forest Lawn, which is currently being renovated with the goal of providing that space.

However, they need funding; while the renovations are being funded by the federal government, the organization needs about $900,000 to operate the service. 

“(These facilities) need funding from Alberta Health Services and perhaps the Calgary homeless Foundation in order to make this program work,” she says, adding she hopes these organizations see this as a priority. 

“When you get to the point where when the unhoused person is requiring palliative care, the options are very limited.”

This is unfortunate, she says, because once they have these types of programs available to them, their quality of life is improved so they sometimes even outlive their diagnosis. 

“We think it’s really important to get people sheltered and get their basic needs met because it’s really hard to address healthcare issues, addiction issues, mental health issues or trauma, while people are still unhoused,” Campbell says. 

“You need to give them a safe, secure platform from which to address these issues as soon as possible. We have seen incredible success with the palliative care program that has been quietly running.” 

Without these programs, the alternative for Calgary’s homeless approaching death is often the hospital or dying in the street, which is why these programs that offer end-of-life services are so critical. 

The key to creating the program is, of course, funding. 

The organizations hope is that AHS steps in to help fund these important programs that are currently falling through the cracks, but they say it takes more than one organization to make it work. 

“I think this is really going to be a collaborative effort. It’s not going to come from one particular funder or another, I think we need to get all players at the table,” Milla says, adding they want to partner with AHS and The Homeless Foundation. 

“And then of course, utilizing our existing community resources, but of course, Alberta Health Health Services, is our target at the moment in terms of providing that medical support that we know we need for end of life for palliative individuals.” 

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Krista Sylvester

Managing Editor at Calgary Citizen

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