An untouched bowl of food is the only sign left under the stairs of Kelly Lane’s northwest Calgary apartment complex, and it marks a very desperate situation.
On Wednesday, Lane found a woman in her 30s seeking refuge under the stairs of the Huntington Hills complex, with a shopping cart full of her personal belongings nearby.
“I left (the food) by there hoping she would wake soon and notice it and grab it,” Lane said.
Throughout the day, Lane checked on the stranger sleeping under her stairs. At the last check around sundown, she discovered the woman had stopped breathing.
EMS confirm they arrived on scene at 5:10 p.m., and the woman was pronounced dead after efforts from paramedics.
Calgary police told Global News they’re still waiting for a cause of death from the medical examiner.
“It’s horrible,” Lane said. “Just the fact she had to sleep outside in the first place. The fact that if I had just made the call an hour or so sooner — she was still breathing at that point — it may have been early enough to save her.”
It’s another tragic example of the realities unfolding on city streets.
According to the Calgary Homeless Foundation, 436 people experiencing homelessness have died so far this year in Calgary.
It’s a significant increase from last year, when 239 deaths were reported by the end of 2022.
“It’s staggering, it’s incredibly troubling, and it is a reminder that we need to keep working at this,” Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO Patricia Jones told reporters.
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Their names were read one-by-one at the ninth annual Longest Night of the Year memorial, which aims to bring them dignity by recognizing and remembering those who died this year.
The memorial is put on by the Calgary Homeless Foundation and the Client Action Committee to humanize the toll of homelessness.
For many, it will be the only commemoration of their lives.
“It’s always very hard, but that’s why we need this place to grieve,” Nigel Kirk with the Client Action Committee said. “We are a community and it does affect us and it does touch us.”
The event included Indigenous drumming, poems, and a moment of silence; flowers and flameless candles were also placed at the city’s homeless memorial on 13th Avenue Southeast.
According to Jones, there are several contributing factors to the drastic jump in the death toll this year including a shortage of affordable housing, a toxic drug supply, and illnesses brought on by living rough on Calgary streets.
“We have deadly drugs in our city, we have deadly weather, we don’t have enough housing,” Jones said. “We continue to work with all three levels of government and our community partners to do the best that we can.”
Jones pointed to several ongoing initiatives aimed at addressing the issue, including investments from the provincial and federal government into a variety of programs to help people with mental health and addictions.
The Coordinated Community Extreme Weather Response, funded by the City of Calgary, was launched on Dec. 1 and offers warming spaces during daytime hours as well as overnight shelter space, including transportation from various LRT stations throughout the winter.
Jones also noted city council’s approval of the housing strategy, and the city’s release of two properties for transitional emergency shelter for 240 families; however, construction won’t be complete for another 18 months.
There are 1,900 people on the Calgary Homeless Foundations triage list for housing, and the organization is monitoring around 400 active encampments across the city.
But sometimes those supports can come too late, evidenced by the fatal fire in Crowfoot that claimed the lives of three people seeking shelter in a shed outside a hardware store.
“The answer is housing,” Jones said. “If there was enough housing with the supports provided, people wouldn’t need to sleep in a shed. That’s what we’re focused on and supporting.”
Jones said she’s confident some of the ongoing initiatives can help reduce the number of people dying while experiencing homelessness on city streets, but noted she’s concerned about the trend.
“More of the people who passed away this year are in shelters, and our shelter partners will be the first to tell you that there’s nothing normal about living on a mat in a building with 900 other people,” Jones said. “We’re worried it’s going to get worse before it gets better but we’re optimistic about our partnerships and our collaborations.”
For Lane, the hope is people show some more compassion and kindness to those struggling to survive.
“People are people no matter what,” she said. “You don’t know their situations, you don’t know where they came from, or why they are where they are.”
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