AMBER BRACKEN

Suddenly There’s Room at the Inn

Thousands remained homeless in spite of Alberta’s 10-year plan. Then the pandemic came.

By Tim Querengesser

On a recent Thursday outside the Coliseum Inn, a woman in wrinkled clothes balances a large blue sleeping bag atop her shoulder. In the parking lot a man pushes a shopping cart overflowing with clothing. Outside the lobby doors, a man asks, “Hey, got a dollar?”

The scene is at odds with the hotel’s gilded past. Thanks to its proximity to Northlands Coliseum, the 16,839-seat arena just across the road that the Edmonton Oilers used to fill, travelling athletes and celebrities once stayed at the Coliseum Inn, including the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and the Eagles. When COVID-19 arrived in March, the Inn’s 98 rooms were shut down like all Edmonton hotels. Weeks later the rooms were reopened. The new guests were not rock stars but homeless people.

One of them was Rob Sharkey. Sharkey slept on his brother’s couch for six months until COVID-19 hit. That was when the 40-year-old and his brother realized that their dad, who has a lung disease and who also lived in the house, was at high risk of contracting the virus. Sharkey left. Some nights he slept under brush, others on a mat at an Edmonton gym repurposed into a shelter. Sharkey, a father and ticketed welder who once owned his own company and now has colon cancer and bad credit, would wake and get himself across Edmonton to the city’s day shelter at the Expo Centre, which was feeding people. During those first few weeks of COVID-19, nothing else was open. Finding food, he says, was constant work. It left him with near zero time to solve his actual problem, which was that he was homeless.

Sharkey’s strategy was to build up energy for apartment viewings. “The choice was eat and remain homeless or starve on a ‘maybe’ for an apartment,” he says. Meal lineups at the Expo Centre shelter, where he and more than 500 others gathered daily, took at least 90 minutes. Apartments that fit his $700-a-month budget dictated by the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped [AISH] he collects were often at the city’s edge. The bus to view them ran on a reduced schedule. If he wanted a clean shirt so he didn’t “smell like bugs” and had a better shot at impressing a landlord, he had to sign up for a laundry machine, take more time, miss more meals. Given that his cancer means he needs a high-calorie diet just to keep weight on, Sharkey says every three days or so he could charge up enough to see an apartment. “That was about the best you could do.”

And yet Sharkey says that while the pandemic put him outside, several weeks later it also created a roof for him. In late April he got a shared room at the Coliseum Inn. Here he was able to clean his clothes, search the internet for apartments, get references from outreach workers and eat regular meals. The hotel is one of several across Canada—including one in Toronto dedicated to women fleeing domestic abuse (a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women has been a side-effect of sheltering in place) and one in BC bought outright by the provincial government—to house people during the pandemic. All of it happened as a response to COVID-19.

 Albertans may have expected homelessness to be less of a challenge as the pandemic arrived. The province, after all, had committed to “A Plan for Alberta: Ending Homelessness in 10 Years” back in 2008. Twelve years later, in the seven cities where the push rolled out—Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray—the results were wildly impressive. But they are also incomplete. Medicine Hat is now known as a city that “eliminated” homelessness in 2015, but officials there say shelters are still used and demand has grown during the pandemic. In Calgary, of 2,911 people experiencing homelessness in 2018, more than 1,900 were chronically homeless (i.e., had been homeless for a year or longer). Edmonton’s 755 emergency shelter spaces (as of June 2020—the number fluctuates with funding), which should now be only for short-term crises, were often 90 per cent filled on a typical night before the pandemic. A 2019 report found that 1,923 people were chronically homeless in the city, and 486 of them, about half of whom self-identified as Indigenous, chose to camp outside.

Homeward Trust, an agency that leads several other Edmonton organizations in the collective push to end homelessness in their city, has managed to house more than 10,800 people—just a touch less than the population of Canmore—in the 12 years. But the organization has struggled with those who are chronically homeless. Simple housing isn’t the solution for this population, says Susan McGee, the organization’s chief executive officer. “They need home care,” she says. This includes various supports such as treatment for addictions and help with managing the challenges of daily life. Without such support, the chronically homeless end up back on the street and in shelters at night.

Shelters are always a concern but become doubly so during a pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, politicians suddenly saw them as a liability. In Calgary this fear proved warranted when 24 people staying at the Drop-in Centre tested positive for COVID-19. The federal government, in early April, committed $157.5-million in emergency funding to the homeless-serving sector across Canada “to just do whatever we could to house people as fast as possible,” McGee says. Public opinion was firmly behind the idea. Soon after, in late April, Homeward Trust partnered with Boyle Street Community Services to offer bridge housing at the Coliseum Inn. Days later Sharkey moved in. 

Organizations in Edmonton have called for bridge housing for years. Wait times for a homeless person seeking housing in Alberta average more than 40 days, and often stretch beyond 90. People need somewhere safe to be during this period. Homeward Trust had inspected locations for bridge housing and written requests for proposals. Small pilots at Edmonton hotels had been evaluated and greenlighted. But the idea to scale it up always hit a wall.

Until the pandemic.

We may be witnessing a permanent shift. More-liberal elements of society have long called for homelessness to be eliminated on moral grounds. Later, research showed that every $1 spent putting someone in housing in Canada saved the public $2. If we add to these two imperatives the public health benefits of housing the homeless—and our growing realization that shelters are potential threats to all of us—the political will found during the pandemic might just continue.

 The story of how Alberta came to be a leader in ending homelessness starts in Calgary in 2007, at the apex of an oil boom. Many people couldn’t afford rents and teetered near homelessness. Tim Richter, who worked at TransAlta at the time but now runs the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, took a role on a committee tasked with ending homelessness in the city, and says he was struck by the promise shown by one of its underlying big ideas—housing first. It was a 180-degree flip from former policy. Previously social agencies required people to be sober and off drugs before they would be provided with housing.

In practice, says Sam Tsemberis, a Canadian who created the Pathways to Housing program in New York that came to be the model for housing first, we were asking too much. “We don’t require average citizens to be clean and sober to sign a lease,” he says. “Imagine how many more homeless Canadians there would be if we required that!”

According to the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, “housing first is not contingent upon readiness, or on ‘compliance’ (for instance, sobriety). Rather, it is a rights-based intervention rooted in the philosophy that all people deserve housing, and that adequate housing is a precondition for recovery.” This, mixed with Calgary’s heightened empathy and community leaders demanding change, created a decisive moment. “The culture in Alberta allowed us to look at this and say, ‘If this is a solvable problem, why don’t we just get on with trying to solve it?’” Richter says.

The new approach was to house people as quickly as possible to save lives and costs. If a person needed to dry out, be treated for mental health challenges or weaned off substances, they could better do so in their own house than on the street or in shelters. Tsemberis came to Calgary in 2007 to plant the seed. By 2008, thanks to Richter and others on the new Calgary Committee to End Homelessness, housing first became provincial policy and spread across the seven Alberta cities.

That same year, the federal government got on board with “At Home/Chez Soi,” the world’s largest-ever trial of housing first, across five Canadian cities. The study found that people in the housing first program stayed in housing 80 per cent of the time, versus less than 40 per cent of the time using traditional approaches. This led Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to change federal policy. The Trudeau government has since introduced a 10-year national housing strategy in 2017 which commits $55-billion and promises the building of 125,000 new homes.

Thanks to this work Alberta is the only Canadian province to have reduced homelessness across the board, Richter says. Richter has since formed the Alliance to share how Alberta succeeded, since so many people were asking. Several communities are following our lead. “We’re seeing Alberta’s fingerprints in the responses we’re seeing around the country,” he says.

The stars are Edmonton, which has reduced overall homelessness by nearly half and has predicted an end to chronic homelessness by 2022, and Medicine Hat, which in 2017 became a worldwide success story featured in The New York Times. The city’s housing-first work since it launched in 2008 has put 1,269 people into an apartment or other housing. “We were known for ending homelessness,” says Jaime Rogers, who leads the Homeless and Housing Development department in the city. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have people who are still falling into homelessness. What it means is that our system of care is operating effectively to actually get people quickly out of the state of homelessness. That’s housing first.”

During the pandemic, that system has hit many bumps. “The biggest shift is the volume of people we serve that are new to the system,” Rogers says. These people were vulnerable before the pandemic but have tumbled into homelessness during its first months. In addition, a large number of people were released by the corrections system to reduce the chance of viral spread in institutions—without forewarning or planning—and ended up “downstream” in the community’s housing system.

What’s it like to be homeless in a pandemic? To answer this, I’m walking with Doug Cooke, outreach manager with Boyle Street Community Services. It’s mid-April and we’re in Edmonton’s river valley, which during the ongoing lockdown has become a cluster of colourful tarpaulin camps and associated dumps. Cooke says the city has agreed to leave these during the pandemic (though as this story went to press, city bylaw officers and police had cleared some camps and their residents due to public outcry).

Cooke says we are looking for “Frank.” He lives just below the office towers downtown in a forest bisected by a freeway. Hundreds of others live here and in other valley nooks year-round, Cooke says, in areas with special names: Coyote Landing. UFO Camp. Jug-handle. The camps are impressive things. We walk to one where a man has burrowed a sort of bunker house into the soil just 10 feet from a popular bike path. Another has built a house, complete with a front door and windows, on an unused staircase in a park. Neither is home when we stop by.

But Frank is. He’s happy to see us but unhappy with the pandemic. “It’s hard to do anything,” he says, emerging from beneath a blue tarpaulin. Frank is white, in his late 40s or early 50s, skinny. His eyes are reddened. He wears a flannel jacket, brown Carhartt pants and a headlamp. “It’s hard to get meals, to maintain any sort of diet.”

Frank is chronically homeless. Cooke’s team has found housing for him in the past through Homeward Trust, but Frank has ended up back in his camp.

For many in his situation, it’s a common story, Cooke says. Without medical support and help in managing an apartment, people can revert to the “known” of homelessness. Finding accommodation again is difficult. The wait is long. Keeping tabs on people is always a challenge, but the pandemic makes it nearly impossible. Landlords have not been showing apartments. Doctors have not been seeing patients. All these steps slow the ability of a person like Frank to get out of a camp and into a house.

And Frank says he feels better outdoors during the pandemic. Shelters are closed except for the night facility at the Kinsmen Sports Centre or the isolation area at the Expo Centre for those with COVID-19 symptoms. “I pretty much isolate myself from everyone. I don’t want company.”

Today the scuttlebutt in the camps is about one guy with apparent symptoms who’s out in the river valley. “He’s a junkie,” Frank says. “He won’t turn himself in because he doesn’t want to be dope sick [at the isolation shelter, which does not have a supervised consumption site]. Somebody needs to go on TV about it. The cops have been looking for him.”

Last year the United Conservative Party government cut into parts of Alberta’s social safety net. This included shrinking the Rental Assistance Program by 24 per cent and reducing the affordable housing maintenance budget by $53-million. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi called the latter move “a shocker.” “We are in a position where [when] someone moves on, out of affordable housing, we can’t give their unit to someone else because it doesn’t meet basic life requirements,” he told reporters. “No good can come of this… what a bizarre place to cut your capital budget.”

Many people I spoke to said off the record that they were “troubled” by other parts of UCP government policy, particularly abstinence-based programs around substance use. “How can we possibly go backward?” one person asked. “We just spent years demonstrating that this doesn’t work very well.”

For homelessness, the competing force to this trend is COVID-19. Public health can now be added to cost savings and the moral imperative to end homelessness.

And demand is only expected to grow. “We are going to have a tremendous amount of families that will experience homelessness for the first time,” Rogers says of the next year in Medicine Hat and Alberta in general. “If people have housing right now, we need to maintain them in their housing and then work really hard to get those currently experiencing homelessness out of that state. Housing is key. We need to have adequate housing and rent supplements in place.”

There will be renewed questions of jurisdiction. Housing First has been a collaborative push from community organizations, municipal and provincial governments and Ottawa. But when it comes to spending big money, the situation has often been “the political equivalent of a high-school dance,” Richter says. “Everybody’s stood along the wall looking at their feet, waiting for someone else to make the first move.” What needs to happen post-pandemic, he says, is for the Alberta government to get engaged and support its biggest cities—a woefully missing ingredient at the moment—on accessible housing. (As this story went to press the City of Edmonton committed $600,000 to add 78 bridge-housing units at a former jockey dormitory at Northlands, and $40-million for another 207 units of permanent supportive housing—with Mayor Don Iveson citing the “provincial government’s abdication of leadership.”) Better provincial support could “drag the feds” to invest more, Richter says.

Challenges from often hidden causes are inevitable. Ronald Kneebone, a University of Calgary economist who has studied the effects of public-sector policy on homelessness, says a key driver of chronic homelessness is poverty. This is linked to the paltry support—Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and other benefits—people receive in Alberta, especially those who are single. “On that level of support [AISH], about $8,000 a year, there’s no frigging way they can maintain their housing in Calgary, and so they end up in shelters,” he says. “It’s very much the canary in the coal mine. If the shelter system is tending to overflow, there’s something wrong with the rest of the system.”

Targeting shelters won’t change this reality, Kneebone says. Targeting poverty will.

But there will also be financial reckonings. Pre-pandemic, Alberta had switched to an austerity footing, with cuts across the public sector and more planned. Some may want to believe circumstances require Kenney to spend more on social goods. But Kneebone and several others are not convinced. “When governments are scrambling to save money, poor people tend to be left out of the equation,” he says.

The most powerful tool to prevent a massive backslide toward a homeless epidemic is framing. Providing the homeless with housing saves money and doing nothing costs money. That’s one frame. To this, add the frame that housing is a form of healthcare.

Says Susan McGee: “We’re just killing ourselves to house individuals, working as hard as possible to keep those numbers up all the time, support people and maintain their housing. The rest of the system isn’t coming into place the way our original efforts envisioned.”

Tim Richter, though, is optimistic. He sees a similar groundswell of public empathy post-COVID-19 that he saw 12 years ago in Calgary. “Albertans are now at home, and we see that housing is health care. We feel the same anxiety and uncertainty around the future. I think there’s an opportunity that Albertans will say ‘We see how close we came.’

Back at the Coliseum Inn, I ask Rob Sharkey if the pandemic could change things for the better. “There’s obviously the need. This place has a bunch of people in it and there’s a lot of people on the street.” Without a hotel, or somewhere to stay to find your feet and actually get into more permanent housing, he says, “you’re not helping stop the spread of anything.”

That’s likely true of homelessness as well as viruses.

Sharkey tells me he now has the energy to view three to four apartments a day, and even has a line on a place for next week. And he sees the irony. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, the funding wouldn’t be available, so there’s a silver lining in every cloud.”

Tim Querengesser lives in Edmonton. He is finishing his first book and producing a history podcast with Canadian Geographic. 

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