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Facing challenges camping out in the cold

Last Updated Jan 10, 2020 at 7:41 am MDT

CALGARY (CityNews) – The bitter, frigid temperatures are posing problems for dozens camping out.

As temperatures plummet in Calgary, the Alpha House Encampment Team will be out checking on the homeless who, for various reasons, don’t use shelters, instead using tarps and heaters to protect themselves from the elements.

Clusters of homeless encampments line the streets of Calgary – many just out of view of the public – but Alpha House knows where to look and checks on the sites as frequently as they can.

“We’re around Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day,” said outreach worker Mark Verbecky who said at last count, his team found around 95 camps.

Along with the encampment team, Alpha House is one of eight homeless shelters in the City of Calgary that people living on the streets can access but many still choose to set up camp.

“It has a lot to do with the feeling of freedom, you have your own rules out here, whereas in the shelter you’re living by someone else’s,” said Verbecky. “A lot of couples – they’re not allowed to be together in shelters – so a lot of couples will choose to sleep outside, just so they can stay together.”

The camps are made up of junk that’s been collected over time and structures that aren’t much more than tarps hanging from trees.

Jacquie and her partner Alex have been camping for over a year and despite the cold weather, they say it’s better than the alternative.

“Have you been to the shelters? They suck. There’s always drama, always fights, always something – a lot of us would rather just not be there – so we choose this”

As the temperatures continue to drop, the need to heat these spaces becomes more important and can sometimes force the homeless to do whatever it takes.

Jacquie said she uses anything from barbecues to propane tanks just to keep warm.

Aside from the tough days living on the streets, there are rough times to be a part of the encampment team, even if the work is rewarding.

“One-time last spring, we did get a community call about a camp being set up downtown,” said Verbecky. “It took us an hour but by the time we got there, the person inside the camp had been deceased for more than that. Not a nice day at work but it’s the reality of it.”

With over 5000 homeless people living in Calgary alone – the winter months bring a new set of challenges and the reality is – it’s life or death.