Early this week there were 20 people bundled in parkas waiting their turn to enter the CIBC bank in the centre of downtown Edmonton.
Most weren’t exercising social distancing.
A couple of blocks away three guys with shopping carts piled high with empty cans and bottles and sleeping bags had staked a claim to a sunny bench on the lip of the city’s river valley.
They weren’t exercising social distancing either.
For the poor and the homeless living on the margins, social distancing isn’t top of mind. Cashing a government cheque at a bank branch that welcomes disadvantaged patrons or finding a warm spot on a sub-zero day is a bigger priority.
Alberta’s cities can be tough on the poor, especially when spring is late. Add on a pandemic and getting by seems nearly impossible, and seriously dangerous.
Edmonton’s mayor Don Iveson sounded the alarm early on in the outbreak about the plight of the homeless. Getting them indoors in a safe space was crucial to stop a runaway spread of Covid-19 in the vulnerable population.
Provincial and city governments responded with an eye on what can be done practically and quickly. The results are classically institutional – convention centres in Calgary and Edmonton with acres of unused space were turned into vast expanses of evenly spaced cots and long tables.
In smaller cities and more suburban areas the sleeping quarters were even less inviting – gym matts on hardwood floors in churches and community centres.
Social media erupted about the inhumanity. That was only magnified when the province’s Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw defended the scant space between cots for sleeping.
“It’s trying to weigh out the risks to those individuals who need to use those shelters, with respect to transmission, and the risks of having them potentially out in the cold,” she said.
“The people who are lying next to each other are not just one metre apart from one head to another, but they’re actually further apart because of the diagonal distance between the two heads.”
Calgary has just taken an initiative to outfit 100 rooms in an empty hotel for shelter residents who need to be isolated due to illness. Other cities in Canada are using hotel rooms for homeless shelters, but so far Alberta cities have been reticent to take the step. The province suggested there was an issue with suicide proofing rooms. A shelter charity in Calgary raised the spectre of bed bugs.
Beyond and above where the homeless will sleep is the issue of where they will go during the day.
There are some existing drop-in spaces, but they are strained by social distancing edicts. Edmonton’s Expo convention centre has an area separate from the sleeping areas for an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. drop in. It is pretty grey and uninviting.
The usual haunts of the transient population are, of course, closed. Library branches have been closed since mid March. Coffee shops, if they’re open, have no seating.
In Calgary Mustard Seed clients have nowhere to go once they leave the shelter.
“To be honest, they’re just basically wandering the streets,” Calgary’s Mustard Seed CEO Stephen Wiletold the CBC.
“It’s really unfortunate that we’re getting such a late spring, because typically …. the weather would be nice enough that it wouldn’t bother them to do that, but this is a cold week this week.”
The entire issue requires some immediate out of the box thinking.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley favours a hotel solution.
”We believe these people… are entitled to the same dignity and the same rights as other Albertans. And we also believe that the kind of setup that we see these folks living in right now is bound to create a concentration of infections and disease spread.”
Ultimately the potential spread of Covid-19 is the crisis that will galvanize some better solutions, but hopefully not sterile and inhuman solutions. Governments being what they are, aren’t set up to think compassionately. And charities, set up to think compassionately, don’t have the resources to translate caring into innovation.
But someone has to make life safer and easier for the homeless.
Covid-19 was initially spread in North America not by the poor, but by tourists and travellers with the resources to fly internationally.
The haves owe the have-nots a safe place to live during this crisis.
Photo Credit: Calgary Journal
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