Calgary homeless shelters adapt holiday services to keep spirit alive amid pandemic


Operators of Calgary's largest homeless shelters say that like everyone else, they're adapting to pandemic restrictions this winter and holiday season — and they're doing everything within their power to make sure some of the city's most vulnerable people still feel cared for. 

"This holiday season will be different for us than previous years," said Kala Ortwein, spokesperson for the Calgary Drop-In Centre (DI). 

"But what's been really fantastic is the community has still stepped up to make sure that staying in our shelter still feels that holiday cheer."

Ortwein said a typical holiday meal at the shelter requires the support of 20 volunteers per meal — or upward of 60 volunteers a day. 

"Right now, our staff are definitely working very, very hard to fill that gap," she said. 

Capacity is also down at the shelter, which would usually see close to a thousand clients a day at this time of year. Currently, the DI is averaging about 268 people per day. 

Ortwein said special holiday meals have been sponsored privately this year, and festive programming is still happening at the Drop-In Centre, but on a much smaller scale this year.

"Unfortunately, folks can't come in to serve meals, but his means that we have the resources to make sure we can provide warm and comforting meals around the holidays, including a special turkey meal with all the fixings on December 25th," she said. 

The DI is one of seven shelters in Calgary receiving meals and donations from local businesses that are working with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

Ortwein said people can still help the shelter by making a donation or signing up for its Fill-A-Sock program.

"This is a great way to get your whole household involved. Grab a big sock and fill it up with some goodies, with gift cards, chocolates or candies, razors — that kind of thing. Just as essential items, they really go a long way."

Drew Gusztak with the Mustard Seed said that in years past, December has been a month of fun and events for clients. 

"In previous years, we do like a huge amount of volunteer activities. We do outings. We go bowling. We rent the movie theaters," he said. "December is the time of year we allocate a decent amount of our budget to really show our clients a good time."

This year, those types of events are a no-go. But, Gusztak said, there are still lots of things being done to keep the season's spirit alive. 

"We've been asking for gifts on behalf of our clients throughout all of December. We request special items, things like backpacks with all the personal items that they would want, not just need. So there … is a gift element to that," he said.

"On Christmas Day, it really is getting those gifts to the clients."

Instead of hosting larger community meals this year, Gusztak said staff from the Mustard Seed will host smaller, physically distanced meals in its shelter cafeterias, but for clients living in alternative shelter spaces, meals will be delivered door-to-door. 

"Usually we would do a massive meal. That's big. It's almost a restaurant-style where we open up one of our common rooms or the support centre, and we bring everyone in together and we have music and we have volunteers," he said.

"This year, obviously, we can't do that. But we can have our staff serve the residents out the door on Christmas Day so that they have a bit of cheer."

Shaundra Bruvall with the Calgary Alpha House Society said the shelter accommodates 120 individuals in regular times, but right now that number is down to about 88 to allow for physical distancing. 

"We've also been able to open a secondary, satellite shelter so that we can have both increased distance at our main building and then also still provide shelter space for those that do need it."

She said holiday meals are being served by shelter staff this year. 

"We've changed the setup of the gathering so that clients can stay completely distanced from from each other and so that they can wash their hands beforehand," she said. "We are following all of the protocols but still offering an opportunity to celebrate a little bit with the clients."

Bruvall said it's been pleasantly surprising that community support has not changed much for the shelter. Calgarians have donated things like individually packaged meals, she said. 

"Even though things are difficult for so many people, it's been amazing to see the community still ensure that they are taking care of all of the clients that we do serve," Bruvall said. "We have seen tons of people donating winter items, boots, hats, jackets — which, of course, our clients do need, especially during this time of year."