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UCalgary students start petition decrying housing of homeless in convention centre

By Kristy Koehler, April 6 2020—

Two University of Calgary students are appalled that the city’s vulnerable population will be sheltered at the Telus Convention Centre instead of in hotels.

Vagisha Agrawal and Ariana Agouridis read CBC’s report that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s plan to house the city’s homeless in hotels was overruled by the provincial government. The students started a petition and are hoping that fellow Calgarians not only sign it, but send emails to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney demanding that he reconsider.

“I was reading a lot about our homeless population and wondering what was going to happen to them during this crisis,” said Agouridis, an International Relations major at U of C. “It’s a local issue that already has some support and public pressure could actually be meaningful in changing something.”

Agrawal believes that housing homeless in more dignified locations sets a precedent, proving that the government is able to shelter the city’s vulnerable all the time, not just during a time of crisis. She thinks the government is simply worried about optics.

“I wish they would be worried about how it looks to deny people a shelter when it’s so easily available to them,” she said.

She also believes that the virus is being politicized by governments, who are acting on the basis of their own self-interest, rather than public well-being. She’s concerned that the United Conservative Party’s decision to lay off education workers was suspiciously timed.

“They anticipate that people are not going to react,” said Agrawal.

The students have enlisted their friends to call their local representatives and share the issue on their social media. Agouridis wishes she could do more, but says it’s difficult when there’s no ability to take to the streets and protest amidst physical distancing measures. Still, she’s been pleased with how many friends — and even professors at U of C — have shown their support.

“Education is ideally supposed to produce more informed and active citizens and I think that this is really at the heart of what studentship should look like,” said Agrawal. “The kind of knowledge that we are privileged enough to have access to and explore at this institution positions us to lend a hand to other populations that might not be positioned in the same way.”

Agrawal says that homelessness is an intersectional issue, and that learning about structural inequality in school would be for naught if she wasn’t able to somehow put her knowledge to practice in helping others. 

Both Agrawal and Agouridis stress that this “isn’t about two students who started a petition.” 

“The lived experiences of our vulnerable population is at the center of this for us. This is a crisis that is causing us to think about what we want our future to look like,” said Agrawal. “Students are in a unique position to be thinking about what they want their world to look like. Social causes like this are really important for how we construct that world view.

“This crisis has a way of amplifying power structures and amplifying all the dysfunctionalities that existed pre-coronavirus and have now been brought to the front in a more obvious way. It’s our duty to think about what we as people can do and what we can learn from this virus and how to move forward in a constructive way.”

Agarwal was disappointed that the public voice wasn’t taken into consideration, calling what’s happening under the UCP a “moral crisis.”

“During this time, we should be vigilant in watching what our government is passing under this guise of distraction,” said Agouridis.

Marie Renaud, opposition critic for community and social services and NDP MLA for St. Albert, says that housing is essential in normal times, and that during times when we’re being asked to practice physical distancing, having somewhere to do that, as well as to practice proper hygiene is incredibly important. 

“What I’ve been asking the UCP for is to see the data that they used to make the decision that they did,” said Renaud. “For example in Calgary we understand through public reporting that Mayor Nenshi was under the impression that there was an agreement to go ahead and house homeless in hotels or motels and then that changed. I want to see the data that supports that.”

Renaud questioned why, when we’re hearing from Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health for the province of Alberta, that we need to practice physical distancing and proper hygiene, we’re housing vulnerable populations in spaces that may not be ideal for such things.

“Our goal is to help prevent community spread, and of course treat every single Albertan with respect and dignity. Shoving people into church basements onto mats and into convention centres where people are jammed into bathrooms and don’t have access to showers, it’s wrong on so many levels,” said Renaud.

“I’m incredibly grateful for students who start petitions like this. It’s so important that people point out that this is wrong and there’s so many things we can do to prevent really bad outcomes for people all over Alberta.”

The reason for housing homeless in the convention centre, according to minister of community and social services Rajan Sawhney, is that hotels need to be retrofitted so that suicide prevention measures are in place. The process takes time.

Renaud says she’s not buying it.

“I don’t think the research supports that either,” she said. 

The Calgary Hotel Association said that many of their member hotels “came forward with offers of support to provide accommodations to vulnerable Calgarians” and “did so because of their support for our community, our City and a very genuine worry for those most vulnerable during this time of crisis.” 

The City of Toronto recently acquired hotels and vacant rental buildings to house homeless as part of it’s strategy for caring for the city’s vulnerable.

The petition started by the students is available online.

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