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Convention centre to house homeless in Calgary during COVID-19 pandemic

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Calgary's mayor says organizers have done an extraordinary job transforming a downtown convention centre into a temporary homeless shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he believes hotel rooms would have been a better option.

"I've got to say: the convention centre has really stepped up to the plate at making this as good as it could possibly be given the model," Naheed Nenshi said Wednesday.

The shelter at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre is being funded by the Alberta government and operated by the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

Opening Thursday for about two months, it is to serve up to 300 people around the clock, freeing up space in existing shelters to allow for more physical distancing.

Nenshi says the spread of COVID-19 into the homeless community is the top public health risk. As of Wednesday, there were 527 confirmed cases in the Calgary area, and Nenshi said that could easily double or triple if the virus were to take hold in that population.

"That's ultimately why we had to move forward with the convention centre, because it wasn't helping anybody to continue in arguments about what the right model is while there were still 600 people staying shoulder-to-shoulder at the Drop-In Centre every night," Nenshi said.

Alberta Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said it wasn't feasible to transfer 300 people from shelters into hotels because of the work involved in removing objects guests could use to harm themselves.  

"Speed was a consideration," she said. "We needed to have the spaces put in place as soon as possible."

She said Alberta Health Services has signed off on the facility. Like other shelters, it is exempted from the rule that there be no more than 15 people in an indoor space.

For homeless people who are sick or who have tested positive for COVID-19, a hotel is being retrofitted so that they can be properly isolated. Sawhney said that includes removing anything with strings, light fixtures with chains and sharp objects.

Alpha House, which helps men with addictions issues, has moved about 40 clients into a different hotel, Sawhney said. Those rooms have not been retrofitted, but the minister noted staff are better able to supervise those clients than a larger group.

NDP Community and Social Services Critic Marie Renaud called on Sawhney to release data and medical recommendations behind the decision not to use hotel rooms for all overflow shelter clients.

Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Drop-In Centre, said the convention centre shelter came together in less than 48 hours. That might not have happened so quickly with hotel rooms, and Sawhney's safety concerns are valid she added.  

"We are, unfortunately, the largest homeless shelter in North America and that does present really unique challenges," said Clarkson.

Convention centre president and CEO Kurby Court said cots are being laid out about two metres apart with heads pointing in opposite directions. There are large aisles around the perimeter with wash stations and 2 1/2-metre tables for two people.

"The whole venue is designed around reducing queuing, ensuring social distancing and allowing smooth transitions for our guests," he said.

Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said the convention centre shelter is the third-best option behind apartment housing and hotels.

"We're in the throes of a crisis and at this point we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said.

"It's not ideal. Nothing in this is ideal. But at this point anything that will ... make people safer than they were I think is good."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press