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Proposed $750K emergency funding for Calgary homeless population gets committee nod

Chaz Smith, right, talks with Gordon Kelter who is homeless in Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Calgarians sleeping rough could soon be getting additional help in a couple of ways, if city council agrees with a committee recommendation.

On Wednesday, the city’s community development committee unanimously endorsed $750,000 in emergency funding for this winter.

Service providers would receive those funds through the Calgary Homeless Foundation to help expand shelter capacity and provide people with more winter weather items like toques, mitts and socks.

But the idea of opening warming centres was left off the table.

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“I believe there is opportunity to have a more comprehensive discussion around the sector, around homelessness, around affordable housing in Calgary,” Ashley Wedderburn with the city’s neighbourhood strategy team said. “And I believe there may be an opportunity to have that type of conversation at the strategic council meeting on Dec. 13.”

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Chaz Smith, president and founder of Be The Change YYC, said the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the scope of homelessness.

“We had almost no drop-in services throughout the pandemic where people could simply come in, shower, eat food, do laundry,” Smith said.

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The committee also heard revelations from recent consultations with many unhoused Calgarians and reasons for distrust in the existing shelter system. Those reasons included the risk of violence, personal belongings being stolen, a lack of privacy, a lack of accommodation for pets and COVID-19. Couples expressed concern about being split up in shelters and some women said they experienced sexual violence in shelters.

“What it looks like on the front lines is absolute direness,” Dana Lyons, president and co-founder of the Street Sisters Society, said.

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Lyons said their patrols in downtown and Forest Lawn showed anecdotal evidence that more people are not seeking shelter space and choosing to sleep rough.

“This growing concern of distrust amongst this population is something that probably needs attention,” she said.

The current scope of the problem has not been fully measured, due to the pandemic.

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Canadian cities take part in a “point-in-time” count every two years, but the latest fulsome data is from 2018, according to Smith. He said that year showed 3,000 people experienced homelessness that year.

“I would suggest throughout the pandemic we’ve seen an upward trend of the individuals we’re serving, that it’s much higher than that.”

A Calgary Homelessness Foundation speaker said the count done in April showed 1,935 Calgarians experiencing homelessness on that night.

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Rather than have an LRT station serve as a warming centre, as Smith proposed, the plan put forward by city officials would use the existing network of shelters to provide warmth.

Katie Black, general manager for the city’s community services division, said the city needs a more robust homelessness strategy.

‘It’s not something that is part of our city work plan right now,” Black said. “It’s been about 20 years since the city was actively involved in this space because we have such great partners in the community… but it may be time for us to check back in and refresh where things are all at.”

The final decision on this winter’s funding boost goes to city council on Dec. 20.

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