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Shelter opens

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There are over 3,400 people without homes in Calgary. The number comes from a 2006 census taken by Homeless Awareness Calgary and the number is now thought to be closer to 4,000. The Mustard Seed Street Ministry opened the doors of its brand new shelter to hundreds of homeless as the temperatures dipped Mon., Nov. 19.

Mustard Seed Development Officer Diana Schwenk explained feedback so far has been positive. The new shelter is located in a vacant warehouse at 7025 44 St. SE in the Foothills Industrial area and has beds for up to 370 people. There is a shuttle bus running from the downtown core to the shelter starting from about 2-6 p.m. and in the mornings from 5-8 a.m. For people who work outside of those times, the shelter is very close to Calgary Transit routes. Mats for each night can be pre-confirmed by people who stayed the night before, otherwise they are given to the next person who needs it.

"There have been one or two people that wish the shelter was closer to downtown, but for the most part, we've had really good feedback," said Schwenk.

Some of the clients at the shelter were struggling to get away from the downtown area after work because of the drugs and other problems that they might have run into, explained Schwenk.

"People say that they feel safer, it's clean and new and they feel that they have been well treated by staff," said Schwenk. "The goal is to keep people from freezing, but shelters are only a short-term solution to a chronic issue. There needs to be more affordable housing."

One shelter client, who preferred not to disclose his name noted he thought the shelter was pretty well set up.

"They've done a really good job and I'm impressed with the shelter," he said. "From what I understand we were at capacity last night."

In 2006, there was concern from the communities surrounding the emergency shelter set up in the old Brick store that having homeless people in the area would bring problems. Despite the controversy, the shelter last year did well enough that the city approached the Mustard Seed about setting up the emergency shelter for this year again.

Schwenk explained feedback from the foothills industrial area has been positive.

"We haven't had any concerns so far," said Schwenk. "We did send a letter to the businesses before the shelter was opened. Some of the businesses around have approached us about employing workers and it looks like we're going to have a job fair soon. It will be nice for some of the people who are staying out there to have work in the area."

Over 50 per cent of the people using the shelter are currently working, but don't have access to affordable housing, noted Schwenk. A portion of the other 50 per cent are people dealing with addictions or mental health problems, according to Steve, a visitor of the shelter.

"I lost my home on Friday and I've been staying at the shelter since then," said Steve. "A warm place to stay is wonderful, but sometimes it's hard for the working people to get rest because of people staying up through the night. The Mustard Seed is a great organization and I'm sure that they're doing all that they can but the government needs to step in. There are lots of people falling through the cracks."

Steve pointed to the example of a friend who had their rent increased from $500 to $1,000 per month. He stressed he would like to see the government put rent controls in place.

Ward nine Alderman Joe Ceci's jurisdiction includes the Foothills Industrial park explained he is pleased with the shelter.

"I toured it prior to its opening and I was very impressed," said Ceci. "It looked like it would meet the needs for the people staying there."

Ceci also spoke with a businessman who is hoping to employ some of the shelter clients, but agreed with Schwenk and Steve that more needs to be done in the area of homelessness. One city initiative is the Calgary Housing Company, an organization that provides transitional, long-term housing for people wishing to move beyond shelter stay.

Cities know best how to address the specific problems that homeless people in their municipalities face explained Ceci but funds are controlled by the provincial and federal governments.

At the last meeting of the Alberta Urban Municipalities, Ceci noted Calgary was the leader of a resolution for the provincial government to not limit its funding of affordable housing to grants.

"With regard to trying to bring developers and for-profit organizations into the creation of affordable housing, the provincial government needs to find mechanisms to help," he said. "One mechanism that we put forward to the government was tax incentives for the private industries."

The provincial government set up the Committee to End Homelessness, an organization made up of leaders in business, government, social agencies and religious groups in Jan. 2007. The committee will unveil a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the new year.

The shelter is scheduled to run until Apr. 30, but in the new year City Council will decide if it needs to be permanent based on the numbers of people using the shelter.

"If people would like to help out, we can use warm clothes like toques, scarves, gloves, winter jackets and snow pants," said Schwenk.

The clothes can be dropped off at the foothills shelter at the Mustard Seed downtown, or at the University of Calgary's Outdoor Centre. She also mentioned that the Mustard Seed is always looking for volunteers for various programs, especially around the holiday season.

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