Calgary’s homeless population at risk in the cold as COVID-19 cases rise
By Cassie Weiss, Features Editor
The cold is tough on all of us, as we bundle up in scarves and mittens and dash from the transit stop, to the car and back home. Now, imagine doing it all again, but this time take away the warm, safe home. Furthermore, take away the scarves, winter boots and warm jackets.
Although there are a variety of different reasons why a person may find themselves living on the streets during our coldest months, another has arisen as November brings both cold wind and a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases.
The Calgary Drop-In Centre and both the Alpha House’s main building and transitional housing units have declared COVID-19 outbreaks. Because of this, people experiencing homelessness are retreating from the warm shelters and braving the cold, rather than braving the risk of catching the virus.
Global News reported last week that a local Calgary group had assisted approximately 47 people on the streets by providing them with warm clothes, food and other amenities.
The article comments on one man, recently homeless, who broke down in tears, so cold but so afraid of going to a shelter that could potentially expose him to COVID-19. The man, along with a few others, were eventually persuaded to go to a shelter, with the cold winds not giving them any other choice.
I work in the homeless sector and until now, there had never been any indication of how terrified homeless people were. Now, just one day after reading the aforementioned article, there was visible proof — an unhoused person I had never seen before, asleep in the shelter, in just a hoodie, huddled on a mat with his bag wrapped in his arms, minor frostbite on his exposed ears.
“He didn’t want to come here. That’s how scared he was,” said a co-worker, continuing that the only reason the client was in the building was because it had simply been too cold to remain outside.
This begged the question: if he had had the proper clothing to protect against the cold, would he have entered the shelter he was so terrified of?
I couldn’t answer those questions, but it made me realise that as COVID-19 numbers spike, it’s not just the virus that will be taking lives, but the cold as well.
Every year, Be The Change YYC holds a memorial for the homeless lives lost due to the cold weather, and this year they worry that the number is going to be higher than ever before, says a CBC article.
Shelters in the city are doing the best they can to practice social distancing and other preventative measures as people come and go. But, as the struggle to find emergency shelter space continues, the small amount of available space is slowly filling up, packing people in closer quarters and adding stress to an already stressed population.
Mentioned in the above article, the longer someone stays out in the cold, the more their health becomes at risk, especially as the temperature dips lower and lower. Although the fear of catching COVID-19 leaves Calgary shelters at about a 70 per cent capacity, it doesn’t change the fact that, as the year draws to a close, it becomes harder to avoid the cold and increased risk of cold-related issues.
That being said, now is an extremely important time to do everything in our power to ensure that this population feels safe. Sometimes safe means having a warm set of gloves and a pair of boots. Other times, it can mean having just one other person looking out for their safety and ensuring they’re getting the help they need.
The Downtown Addiction Outreach Partnership (DOAP) team, a program of Alpha House Society, has a number you can call when there is concern about someone in distress: 403-998-7388. This person will be picked up and taken to a safer location, which is especially useful on nights when the temperature dips below freezing.
Besides contacting the DOAP team, you can go one step further and donate to the Calgary Drop-In Centre’s donation centre, located at 3610 11a Street N.E. Gloves, coats, scarves, boots and anything else that could make a frigid night just a little less cold are impactful.
The threat of COVID-19 isn’t over, and the threat of winter has only just begun. We may not be able to protect vulnerable communities against a raging virus, but maybe we’ll be able to protect against the cold — ensuring those who have already dealt with so much have more of a fighting chance.