The solution to homelessness in Calgary remains elusive — but the divide isn’t as stark as it used to be
Many seem to agree there’s a problem.
But the solution to homelessness, seemingly, remains as elusive as ever in Calgary.
The recent deep freeze, which sent most running to the comfort of their homes, left hundreds who don’t have one out in the cold.
The unsightly or heartbreaking sight of camps (depending on one’s perspective) where people experiencing homelessness gathered contrasted with ungodly weather conditions, once again putting the issue of the unhoused, under the spotlight.
Not surprisingly, the debates began anew with same-old positions arguing diverse viewpoints on potential solutions, some even questioning whether one exists.
Mayor Jyoti Gondek thinks it does.
“It’s an absolute travesty people don’t have a proper, dignified place to live,” she told Calgary Citizen. “It’s not okay for people to be sleeping in a tent.”
Yet on any given day, according to the Calgary Homeless Foundation, there are up to 1,935 Calgarians without a home to go to for the night.
It isn’t as simple as handing out affordable homes, even if those were available
Real solutions have long eluded municipalities across the country and elsewhere.
Hawaii, for instance, doesn’t have our brutal winters but the state shares the same struggle with finding a way to ensure everyone has a home.
In many places across North America, it is essentially illegal to be unhoused with fines for sitting on sidewalks, sleeping in cars or panhandling.
In many cities, officials routinely clear out ‘unhoused camps,’ while trying to find affordable housing alternatives for those who sleep there.
Earlier this month, bylaw officers and police tore down camps outside Calgary’s Drop-In Centre spawned by complaints and safety concerns.
Open flames for warmth and obstructed access for emergency crews to name a few.
Gondek bristles at terms like ‘cleanups’ and ‘sweeps’ associated with the events.
“That is not how we characterize looking after people in positions of vulnerability when we take down the only home they have,” she says.
“A cleanup is fine if you’re removing debris. It is not fine if you’re removing people.”
Public transit stations where others huddled for warmth were next
So what do you do? In December, the city ramped up efforts to offer short-term assistance and continue to chase long-term solutions with community partners.
That included council approval of $750,000 to help people facing homelessness this winter — funds were given to the Calgary Homeless Foundation to put to use.
Gondek says the recent closure of some LRT stations overnight was a short-term move made to protect “the safety for all Calgarians,” both those who use public transit and vulnerable, homeless people who were subjected to violence.
It is also a bid to link people, among about 170 who sleep in the unheated LRT stations a night, to something better — housing, addictions professionals and other supports.
They weren’t just making people vacate the stations but put teams in place to take those willing to go to emergency shelters.
The Homeless Foundation supported the move.
A drop in the bucket
That said, the problem is complex. And every level of government and local agency or community group has yet to find ways to really change the landscape.
Some say there is increasingly a realization that it will take adequately addressing the many factors that leave someone without a home homeless — whether they are among the visible living on the streets or those quietly struggling while staying in shelters or couch surfing.
Not everyone facing homelessness has issues with drugs or mental illness.
But many do.
Studies cited by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH,) Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, show between 23-67% of people experiencing homelessness across the country report having a mental illness.
Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist and physician with CAMH, says about one in five patients in emergency these days are unhoused.
Of course, the pandemic makes shelters look even less appealing for many who never saw it as an option, anyhow.
“They are afraid that the virus can spread very quickly and that’s certainly not unreasonable,” he told Calgary Citizen, conceding options aren’t so great when the temperatures plummet.
“Certainly sleeping on the streets in the dead of winter in Calgary is harsh.”
A shift in the right direction
Things have evolved from a mental health point of view in the larger homeless discussion — which is a step in the right direction, Gratzer says.
“Solutions look less about law enforcement and arrest and they are thinking much more about the mental health of the population.”
The notion that a homeless person is “an eccentric individual who chooses to be homeless for the freedom of it all,” has shifted to an understanding there is often something else at play, he adds.
Many are touched by addictions, chronic mental health problems all while having no guaranteed safety net to fall upon.
Gratzer says finding a job or housing isn’t easy after another night in the emergency shelter.
A Canadian winter can make that so much more of a challenge
“They are asked to leave at 6:45 a.m. and spend the entire day on the street thinking about where they can go to keep warm, where to find a Tim Hortons as opposed to finding a place and thinking about a follow-up with a psychiatrist, making an appointment with their kidney doctor. They don’t have time to think about that when they are thinking about staying warm,” he says.
“Many if given the opportunity to be given housing are pretty keen for it.”
Studies show those who are housed are less likely to be seen in emergency rooms, less likely to drink and more likely to follow up on things like appointments that will improve their health and lives.
CAMH physician-in-chief, Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, an internationally recognized expert on the Housing First model, says research shows a home is a great foundation for people to start rebuilding lives.
She says the model “can help break the cycle of homeless people with mental illness going from hospitals to shelters to jail and back,” and when housing is treated as a human right, it restores dignity and builds hope.
It seems so, so wrong
Renny Harrison recently watched a woman experiencing homelessness struggling to push a shopping cart full of bottles and belongings uphill through deep snow a few streets away from Chinook shopping centre.
It was dangerously cold and the woman wasn’t dressed for the weather.
“It was like 25 below and with a windchill of -40,” Harrison says.
“She was working really hard. When she got to the top, she just hunched over and looked like she was probably hypothermic.”
Harrison and his wife, Sue, convinced the shivering woman to sit in their car to warm up, keenly aware it is a move many wouldn’t make, but one they felt they had to make.
The couple says there was no indication the woman, who said her name was Angel, was intoxicated but every sign she had been outside too long.
She stayed for about 45 minutes — nodding off to sleep at times, refusing an offer by paramedics to go to a shelter and all the while worrying about the cart she left behind.
Cat and mouse game
As they sat in the car, a man saw Angel’s abandoned cart and ran off with her empty bottles.
Everyone yelled for him to stop but he was young and could move fast.
“She was crying because she thought the guy got her bag, too,” Sue says. “I think she was more devastated a care package that had these mandarin oranges in it was gone.”
The couple gave her $20 to replace the stolen empties and some new socks.
Angel mentioned losing her husband and talked about the cat and mouse game of finding a train station where she could warm up before bylaw officers or police showed up to shoo people like her away.
And that’s where they left her, but not before she asked for a hug.
Sue knows Angel is but one unhoused person among so many.
She doesn’t know the solution but she hopes more are made available including ones that don’t include going to shelters many opt not to turn to.
“I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams why someone would choose -40 C over shelter,” Sue says. “But I’ve not lived in her shoes and I am not her. It feels like there should be something else we can do.”
Many share that very thought
Gondek thinks now is a time when the community is, perhaps, more poised than ever to take steps towards lasting fixes which will only be achieved with a group effort among all levels of government and working with agencies on the frontlines.
The days of people being polarized on the issue may be dwindling.
“That divide is not as stark as it used to be. More and more people, especially in the pandemic, recognize mental health is very complex,” Gondek says.
She is pleased the feds created the Rapid Housing Initiative, a program to support vulnerable Canadians, especially during COVID-19, with funding to support the construction of affordable housing and vows the city will continue with advocacy and partnerships to support unhoused Calgarians with everything from transitional housing to other supports.
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