Over 25% of Calgary’s homeless shelter clients new to the system each month, study shows

More than 25 per cent of people entering Calgary homeless shelters are there for the first time each month, new data published by the School of Public Policy suggests, and one of the study’s authors said he hopes the findings help to challenge misconceptions about poverty.

The study, titled Social Policy Trends: First Admissions to Homeless Shelters, examined the number of people who used emergency shelters for the first time from January 2014 to December 2019.

It found that for each month during this period, an average of 359 people slept in a shelter for the first time in their lives.

According to the research, 27 per cent of beds in emergency shelters experienced complete turnover within an average month โ€” emptying and filling again by people completely new to the shelter system.

It is indicative that a large number of Calgarians are precariously housed, said Ron Kneebone, the School of Public Policy’s scientific director of social and health policy research and co-author of the study.

“People who, if they miss a few hours work or face an unexpected utility bill, maybe will have to give up their housing,” he said.

“And if that happens to them, they end up using either an emergency shelter, or couch surfing โ€” or even living on the street.”

‘It’s really poverty that you have to address’

The findings were distilled from a full research study that used census data from the Drop-In Centre, Alpha House, the Mustard Seed and the Salvation Army in an attempt to understand who historically uses the shelters for extended periods of time and, therefore, who is most at risk of exposure to COVID-19 in Calgary’s homeless system.

The research found that from January 2014 to December 2019, 86 per cent of emergency shelter users could be described as “transitional shelter clients” who stayed an average of 1.7 times for 8.4 days.

Meanwhile, those who used emergency shelters heavily โ€” averaging only 3.5 separate stays in the shelter system, but for an average duration of 484.9 days โ€” amounted to less than two per cent.

“If you think that homelessness is all about drug addiction or mental illness, you’re wrong. Most of the people moving through homeless shelters are doing so because they’re poor,” Kneebone said.

“If you want to address homelessness, it’s really poverty that you have to address.”

‘All levels of government have a role to play’

When we discuss alleviating poverty, Kneebone said the study’s findings are important โ€” it suggests that the size of Calgary’s poverty problem is greater than the number of people who are staying at a shelter each night.

“It includes the people who are on the cusp of homelessness,” Kneebone said, adding measures should be taken to alleviate poverty before it gets to the point of shelter-use.

The level of income support provided to single people is “abysmally low,” he said, which contributes to their high populations in shelters.

Maintaining a stock of housing that people with very low incomes can afford is also important, and includes trailer parks, rooming houses and secondary suites.

And according to Kneebone, those who are using shelters consistently are often experiencing mental health or addictions issues.

They need proactive solutions to get them out of the shelters where these issues can be exacerbated, he said, such as converting hotel rooms into housing.

“Homeless shelters have a role to play, [but] they’re playing right now too large of a role, we’re relying on them too much. And we need to do something,” Kneebone said.

“And all levels of government have a role to play here, in providing housing that people with very low incomes can afford.” 

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