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Homeless supports anticipating increased demand during Calgary cold snap

The Alpha House says its fielding between 60 and 80 calls per day related to the cold, while EMS have responded to 31 cold weather calls downtown since New Year's Day. Global News

With weather getting numbingly cold in Calgary, homeless advocates and those who serve the city’s vulnerable population are concerned about the effects of staying outside in minus-20 C weather.

“As soon as those temperatures drop, especially the sub -10, -15 temperatures start to set in, just being stationary for a few minutes and not having the blood circulating can lead to frostbite in minutes,” Drop-In Centre program supervisor Chris Kavanagh said. “It can lead to massive problems, including amputations and some very serious infections.”

Kavanagh recalls seeing one man whose time on the streets in cold weather led to a number of consequences.

“It was an image that’s probably going to stick in my mind forever,” he said.

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“There was one gentleman who had had a number of his toes amputated and was in real serious pain and constantly being monitored for infection. And it’s something that’s really impactful on our staff because it will affect the quality of this person’s life forever.”

Daily low temperatures are forecast to dip below -20 all week. Friday’s mercury is forecast to hit -25 C. With wind chill, conditions could feel even colder.

“We are anticipating a need, especially for winter clothing, unlike we have ever seen before, because we do have a lot of refugees and newcomers who are struggling and will be experiencing their very first winter here. And the demand for our clothing program has exploded over the last several months,” Kavanagh said.

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The Drop-In isn’t the only organization in the city trying to get cold weather gear to those in need.

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Gordy Hoffman of Project Warmth said he’s seen annual increased demands on the items he’s been handing out “especially now with inflation and with the refugee situation and just with the unemployment and everything – it’s a bit of a mess out there.

“That’s what we’re there for. We’re just swamped.”

Hoffman said his organization, which gives out items like clothing and sleeping bags, sees demand year round. And despite the increased demand, he’s determined to meet the demand.

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“We’re just going to keep on doing it and doing it and getting it so that we have enough. We’ve never run out over the 20 plus years.”

Warm clothing isn’t the only solace people experiencing homelessness have in Calgary. The Calgary Homeless Foundation runs a number of warming centres across the city. The centres provide a place to warm up, socialize, get a snack and seek other services during the day.

“We have this wide variety of partners and willing people who are amazing and work with vulnerable people to support them, to get what they need,” foundation president Patricia Jones said.

“Ultimately, our goal is to get people either to shelter or to services so they can eventually have a house and the supports they need to thrive. And whether that means mental health and addiction supports, medical supports, psychiatric supports, they get to choose.”

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Chaz Smith of Be The Change YYC said he’s seen some of his organization’s clients in other places in the winter, trying to stay warm.

“I was just at the mall the other day. I saw many folks I recognized inside the mall,” he said. “(They also) hang out at train stations, in stores, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, riding busses all day.

“So we do know that there are lots of warming spaces during the day.”

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But Smith said the people he and his team work with on the street often have barriers to accessing other services, due to feelings of being in danger as a minority by nature of gender, race or sexual orientation, or even having pets they don’t want to abandon.

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“We need to continue the conversations about why folks aren’t accessing or able to access emergency shelters because they are intake points,” he said.

Jones said shelters around the city are at about 75 per cent capacity. Effective Dec. 1, 200 more spaces will be added to the existing 135. She said the homeless foundation has daily monitoring from partners like police, bylaw, transit and 911.

“We would never wait until December 1st to activate if there was a need before December 1st. We’re just expanding on December 1st to ensure between December and March when we usually have our coldest months, that we have enough supports to people in the community,” Jones said.

Smith wants to see the conversation open up beyond temporary shelters, citing an affordable housing statistic published by Scotiabank in early 2022.

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“We actually ranked one of the least in all G7 countries,” he said.

“We actually have a supply and demand issue when it comes to housing: we have more demand than we have supply.

“And I think in this conversation, we need to continue talking about it because the province and the federal government have a responsibility to provide housing because in Canada it is a human right.”

Anyone needing somewhere to go in the cold can call or text 211 or visit ab.211.ca. And if you see someone who needs help, you can call the Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership at 403-998-7388.

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