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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, homeless shelters, community agencies, and Alberta Health Services banded together to create emergency isolation and overflow facilities for people experiencing homelessness, all in an astonishing 14 days. The effort was a true show of collaboration, but also a reminder of our own fragility. The guests at these shelters were real people: parents, children, seniors and youth. Anybody can be at risk of experiencing homelessness, and their vulnerability could easily be ours or a loved one’s. That’s why as we pass the one-year mark of the onset of the pandemic, we must remember that shelters are just a step on the journey home – and that people deserve to be housed with supports that set them up for success.
Over the past year, we’ve learned that crises such as COVID-19 disproportionately affect vulnerable people. The pandemic has also exposed our own individual insecurities: not only can we contract the virus, but none of us are immune to falling through the cracks. These cracks can be mental health issues, job loss, food insecurity – and yes, even homelessness. That is why it has never been more important for people to have a place to call home, where they can isolate in the comfort and security that so many of us take for granted but that is not guaranteed for all.
As Minister of Community and Social Services, I am responsible for ensuring that the work of supporting individuals and families at risk of or experiencing homelessness is funded appropriately and with great care.
My ministry funds 107 facilities including homeless shelters, women’s shelters, short-term and long term supportive spaces and isolation sites across Alberta, and supports community-based organizations (CBOs), spearheading Housing First initiatives. In the 2021 Budget, the Government of Alberta allocated $193 million to homeless and outreach supports, including shelters and CBOs such as Calgary Homeless Foundation in Calgary, Homeward Trust in Edmonton, and the municipalities of Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Grand Prairie, Fort McMurray and Lethbridge. In accordance with COVID-19 compliance measures, the government also provided an additional $73 million to address the urgent need in community.
Alongside these efforts, shelter operators like the Calgary Drop-In Center, Hope Mission, Mustard Seed, Alpha House and others began to evolve their services in response to the pandemic. Since the onset of COVID-19, shelter workers at these organizations have shown up every day to care for people in need, and together, they have swiftly placed hundreds of shelter guests into housing. CBOs have also connected countless people experiencing homelessness with housing and appropriate supports.
This is admirable and critical work, but as we navigate the coming months in anticipation of widespread vaccination, we must remember that shelters are no substitute for housing.
Shelters, like emergency rooms in hospitals, are a necessary and integral part of the system of care. However, shelters are only designed to be temporary places to safely care for guests until they can be connected to housing and other appropriate supports. No one wants to stay in a shelter for long. As a community, we need to escalate the triage work within shelters to ensure vulnerable people are rapidly placed into housing with appropriate health supports, because as the pandemic demonstrates, housing and health go hand in hand.
The desire to be healthy, productive, happy and socially connected is universal for all human beings. But sometimes, interventions and supports are required to elevate vulnerable people out of desperate situations so they can enter the next stage of their journey. That’s why we need a robust public safety net that quickly places people into housing with the right supports. Creating a safety net informed by compassionate and economic principles must be a broadly shared accountability, but COVID-19 has shown us that we are capable of doing this extraordinary work together.
Rajan Sawhney served as Minister of Community and Social Services from April 30, 2019 to July 7, 2021.