By Lethbridge Herald on April 23, 2020.
Over the next six months Calgary-based Alpha House will be running both Lethbridge’s new intox facility as well as its emergency homeless shelter.
Combining the two under one organization, but at two separate locations, during the COVID pandemic makes co-ordinating the local response effort a bit easier, admits Kathy Christiansen, executive director of Alpha House.
“On March 22 we took on the work of the shelter and kind of combined it all in one building,” she explains. “It just made it easier to manage one space with a population under a pandemic. As well, we opened a second shelter on March 30 so we could ensure appropriate social distancing and reduce the number of people in a space to mitigate infection transmission should there be someone in the population have the COVID-19 virus. We are separating out the uses that way to the best of our ability.”
To that end, the regular shelter building has been transformed into an intox shelter, and the new temporary shelter at the Fritz Sick gymnasium is for those who are not under the influence of intoxicating substances while staying there.
“People have worked hard to mobilize all of these pieces, and we are grateful to have been a part of it,” Christiansen states. “All of these pieces came into place so quickly because there is a real will to create the best response possible for people who are vulnerable in the community in Lethbridge.”
Alpha House has 40 years of experience in running shelters and intox facilities in Calgary. They have been contracted to take on intox responsibilities in Lethbridge since last October, and will continue those duties even after the pandemic ends.
“We are happy to be involved in Lethbridge in supporting people with substance-use issues to create a safe place for them to be while under the influence of a substance, but also to create an opportunity for them to make some healthier choices moving forward,” Christiansen says. “We started with a team from Calgary, and then hired locally. We did a fairly long transition so that we could do a lot of mentorship and modelling in terms of how to interact with people and how to support people. Mentorship is really important in crisis work, and so we made sure we had a good opportunity to provide that to folks we are hiring.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Alpha House has established new medical screening protocols at both shelter sites to ensure the opportunities for transmission of the virus are limited among those in the local homeless population.
“Our intake process has certainly changed,” Christiansen confirms. “We’re screening people as they come in, and we do have a space where we can isolate people if we feel they need a medical screening and get them into isolation. We feel really positive about the relationship we have with the individuals in need of shelter and accessing the shelter. They seem to be responding pretty well to all of these changes around them. There is a tremendous amount of resilience in this population, and I really admire that about the people we work with.”
Christiansen says another good-news piece on this front is the shelters are seeing about 20 per cent fewer people coming in during the crisis, down to an average of 80-90 per night from 120 per night prior to the pandemic.
“We do have some capacity if we need it, but smaller numbers is a good thing at this point in time,” she states.
While the reasons for this drop are not fully known, Christiansen says from her understanding most of those absent guests have found temporary shelter with family members or friends. Some may also be choosing to sleep outside in the rough with warmer temperatures coming in, she admits.
Christiansen says one thing this pandemic has underscored for many is the essential role housing plays in fostering and maintaining good human health.
“I think this pandemic, in particular, is highlighting that homelessness is not a good place to be regardless of whether you are struggling with substance use or you are not,” she says. “My sense is that Lethbridge is really working toward a continuum of care for this population which moves the people ultimately into housing. There is nothing like a pandemic that says, ‘Stay home,’ to highlight the need for that.”
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter