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Calgary TELUS Convention Centre to serve as emergency shelter amid COVID-19 crisis

Calgary TELUS Convention Centre to open as emergency shelter
WATCH: The Calgary TELUS Convention Centre will be used as an emergency shelter for up to 350 people as organizations look to help vulnerable Calgarians practise social distancing. Michael King reports.

As Albertans continue to self-isolate at home, the province and local homeless shelters are making sure Calgary’s most vulnerable citizens also have the space they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: 3rd COVID-19 death reported at Calgary care centre; officials flag operational concerns

The Calgary TELUS Convention Centre is now set up as an emergency shelter with capacity for 350 people.

The province expects the centre to be open to clients as early as Wednesday.

Alberta’s Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said social distancing guidelines brought forth by her government made the extra space a necessity.

“We really immediately needed to put some new shelter capacity online,” said Sawhney on Tuesday. “We settled on the TELUS Convention Centre in terms of the capacity.”

READ MORE: Alberta has 754 confirmed cases of COVID-19; 9 deaths total

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Sawhney said the convention space will only be for people who are not showing symptoms of COVID-19, and temperature checks and standard screening will be in place as clients enter the building.

She said the province is also working on retrofitting a smaller number of hotel rooms for clients who are showing symptoms, but that process takes time.

“It was at least 10 days for the hotels to be retrofitted,” Sawhney said. “I made the decision that we can’t wait another 10 days to get hotels up and running. We needed something in place immediately.”

READ MORE: Calgary emergency shelters rush to find homes for families amid COVID-19 outbreak

Sawhney said those retrofits include suicide prevention measures like removing curtains and light fixtures.

“Anything that could be potentially risky to some very vulnerable Albertans who might have mental health issues,” Sawhney said.

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When asked about the cost of hotels versus the convention space, Sawhney said that renting the convention hall carries a higher cost per person.

“[The TELUS Convention Centre] is just slightly more but ultimately, when we ran the numbers… it’s all fairly comparable,” Sawhney said. “I would say that the convention centre is a little bit more.”

Sawhney said the final numbers are not known, but funding will come from $60 million allocated for charitable and non-profit groups to support seniors and other vulnerable populations hit hard by COVID-19.

READ MORE: Edmonton mayor pushes ‘province to make a decision now’ to help vulnerable population amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he visited the convention centre on Tuesday and was very proud of the work that’s been done.

“This is going to be best in class, they’ve done every possible thing they could do, they’ve answered every possible question they could answer,” Nenshi said.

Nenshi discusses use of convention centre for Calgary’s homeless during COVID-19 pandemic
Nenshi discusses use of convention centre for Calgary’s homeless during COVID-19 pandemic

He added, though, that an overflow set up like this was “not the solution I would have chosen.

“I think that there are probably ways that would be more effective in slowing the transmission of the virus,” he said, adding that it was a decision made in consultation with the provincial government.

The mayor said there were other options he hopes officials will keep in mind for if the situation worsens.

‘We had to move forward’: Nenshi says it was important to get shelter set up for homeless
‘We had to move forward’: Nenshi says it was important to get shelter set up for homeless

Online reaction

Sawhney acknowledged that the photos of the cots posted online have garnered mixed reaction.

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“The images are stark but it was important to me to be very transparent so that people knew that this is the work that was being done,” Sawhney said.

She said the idea of adding privacy barriers was raised but those running the facility and Alberta Health decided against them.

“They said that they couldn’t see the clients and check on breathing,” Sawhney said. “Cleaning the dividers would also be an additional issue to manage.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Kenney says Edmonton Expo Centre will be used for vulnerable population

Homeless advocate

Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said he appreciates all the work the province is doing to help Calgary’s most vulnerable people.

“I am trusting the experts on the ground [like those at the] Drop-In Centre, Alpha House and Mustard Seed,” said Richter. “I think if the agencies are supportive of the decision, then it’s the right decision.”

Richter said a setup like the emergency shelter at the TELUS Convention Centre sheds light on the housing problem in Calgary.

“The best way is housing. The next best way is hotels and [temporary shelters. They] will do in a pinch,” said Richter. “But let’s focus on keeping these people safe, getting them out of there and into housing, and making sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Richter said he hopes the images of cots send a message to Calgarians.

“This is an issue right now that people are really going to feel connected to,” Richter said.

“Calgarians are losing their jobs… and they’re feeling unsure about the future but they’ve got home. People that don’t [have a home] are still worried about the future and still unsure.”

He hopes the COVID-19 pandemic causes Canadians to push harder to end homelessness.

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