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Five clients test positive: COVID-19 outbreak at Calgary homeless shelter


CALGARY — A homeless shelter in downtown Calgary is working to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 after five people staying there tested positive for the virus.

The Calgary Drop-In Centre said that as of Wednesday, more than 140 clients and 100 staff have been tested on-site since the shelter reported its first case a week ago.

"We are all continuing to work diligently to keep our shelter staff and client population protected best we can, and we thank the community for their kindness during this time," the shelter, one of the largest in North America, said in a statement.

People are waiting for test results in a hotel that's being used as an assisted isolation site, as well as at the Drop-In Centre's satellite shelter.

An Alberta Health Services guidance document issued to shelters in July states beds, mats or cots should be spaced two metres apart head-to-toe, if space allows.

However, acknowledging space limitations, a minimum of one metre is allowed in non-outbreak situations.

"At this time, I haven't been told that the sleeping arrangements were a contributing factor to the outbreak," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer, said Thursday.

"The information that I've received at this point indicates that there is some evidence transmission occurred between individuals when they were outside of the building."

Before the pandemic, the Drop-In Centre housed an average of 725 people per night. Now, its capacity is 300.

The shelter is open only to people who have been inside since Aug. 8.

Chaz Smith, who runs the Be the Change YYC homeless outreach team, said he met 10 people who were turned away last week.

"It increases, if you have any mental-health symptoms, that sense of abandonment," he said.

"(It) increases the anxiety, the depression associated with not being able to have a safe place to go or access to food, water, washrooms, showers and essentials of life."

He said it was inevitable that there would be an outbreak at a shelter, given how the virus spreads, and that the two-metre distancing rule should apply like in most other indoor spaces.

Edmonton's city council voted Wednesday to ask the provincial and federal governments for money to buy financially distressed hotel and apartment buildings and convert them to short- and medium-term transitional homeless accommodations.

Smith has sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and others asking to make vacant hotel rooms available as temporary homeless shelters.

"We plead with you to make a long-term plan that will address the impending colder weather. We hope you will act sooner than later," Smith wrote.

The Alberta government announced $48 million in new funding last month to support shelters and community organizations that serve those without homes.

"The purpose of this funding is to support isolation and care facilities, overflow shelter sites, altered service delivery to prevent the spread of infection and 24/7 shelter access," Diane Carter, a spokeswoman for the ministry of Community and Social Services, said in a statement Thursday.

She said the Mustard Seed and Hope Mission in Edmonton are both currently providing around-the-clock services, such as laundry, meals and showers. But Carter did not provide details on how much of the funding those shelters received and how much has gone toward other organizations so far.

The province wound down temporary shelters at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Edmonton Expo Centre this summer, and Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said last month alternative overflow options were being explored.  

Smith said although those on the street are again able to panhandle with the reopening of businesses downtown, the priority is finding somewhere warm to sleep.

"I just don't want my clients to have to start saying 'I have to break into places again to stay warm.' It's survival instinct. If we don't provide, that's what they're going to do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.

Lauren Krugel and Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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