Calgary Homeless Foundation, YWCA prepare “Winter Response” for homelessness

Calgary women who find themselves homeless this winter will have a place where they can find a bed — the YWCA.

For the first time, the YWCA will provide 50 spaces in in its downtown gymnasium for women, Elsbeth Mehrer, the director of external relations for the organization, has confirmed in an interview.

The beds will be part of the annual “Winter Response” to Calgary’s homelessness problem.

These spaces constitute the additional support associated with the Winter Response program, led by the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF), though Mehrer adds that the YWCA has been sheltering women in need for more than 100 years.

“As long as we’ve been open in Calgary, housing and emergency shelter has been a huge part of what we do.”

The YWCA’s involvement this winter, which is meant as a pilot program caters specifically to women in need.

“There’s a demonstrated value among women who are experiencing homelessness in creating some community, in having the safety effect of being in a woman-only environment,” she said in an interview.

Though details are unconfirmed, the extra spaces are likely to last from November through April.

Several other organizations will also be aiding in the Winter Response this year, according to Dr. John Rook, president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

However, those organizations can’t be identified until details of the arrangements have been worked out, Rook said.

Providing shelter under the Winter Response program involves more than just putting mattresses on a floor, he explained.

“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough food, washrooms, showers, all of those types of things and good security, so it’s a big project.”

Of the entire homeless population, an estimated 3,576 individuals as of August,  the Winter Response focuses primarily on the percentage of those considered “rough sleepers,” meaning people who stay outside overnight.

This year’s Point in Time Count Release by the CHF shows about one fifth the number of rough sleepers in winter compared to summer, largely due to increased shelter capacity when the cold weather hits.

Outreach teams then go around the city informing the remaining rough sleepers about available spaces.

However, ensuring shelter space for those who need it goes deeper than increasing capacity, according to Rook.

That means unblocking the system, so those who are in shelters and shouldn’t be, can be housed elsewhere.

One such method is the Housing First program, which moves people into appropriate housing prior to dealing with contributing factors such as addiction and mental illness.

“Since 2008, about 4,000 people have been housed under the Housing First model,” says Rook, who attributes Calgary’s first ever decrease in the homeless population between 2008 and 2012 to Housing First.

According to the Government of Alberta website, funding for Housing First increased by 28 per cent in the last year.

About Ian Lemke 4 Articles
As a writing and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Ian Lemke worked as a reporter for The Press during the 2012-2013 academic year.