Edmonton’s homeless shelters home to body lice, ‘refugee-camp-like conditions’

Alberta’s perpetually mismanaged boom-and-bust economy makes homelessness worse, as hopeful immigrants flock here in hopes of a better life, and find nowhere to live. At least this guy has warm boots. Below: Dr. Stan Houston and Dr. Mat Rose.

Welcome to Alberta, the Richest Place on Earth, where body lice are showing up on residents of homeless shelters, an affliction normally associated with Third World refugee camps.

Earlier this week, University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist Dr. Stan Houston warned colleagues in an email of “a very powerful health indicator of the kind of poverty we are seeing (and creating) in this, one of the wealthiest political jurisdictions in the world.”

To wit, said Dr. Houston: “Last week, for the first time in my life, including seven years in Africa, I saw a patient of mine with a body louse infestation. He had been living in city shelters, so there has to be more where that came from.”

Dr. Houston added that he had immediately notified public health authorities.

The appearance of body lice in Alberta is significant for two reasons, he observed:

1)    “This is a marker of extreme, refugee-camp-like conditions.”
2)    Body lice, unlike the much more familiar head or pubic louse, can transmit several potentially life-threatening diseases, although the ones that showed up here don’t appear to have been doing so.

Let’s repeat one point for emphasis: “This is a marker of extreme, refugee-camp-like conditions.”

This indicates “really severe deprivation of people living in really awful conditions,” Dr. Houston added in a CBC story following up on his email to colleagues.

And Dr. Mat Rose of Edmonton’s Boyle McCauley Health Clinic told the CBC reporter he’s been seeing an increase in body lice infestation cases this year, up to as many as three times a week.

These reports are really not an auspicious beginning to Alberta’s new era of austerity, which was officially announced by Alberta Premier Alison Redford in her Sad Sack State of the Province Address a few days before Dr. Houston made his troubling discovery.

In fairness to Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government, it has actually funded some effective programs to create housing for the homeless that are making progress getting people off the streets and into permanent shelter.

Homeward Trust Edmonton has conducted counts of the number of homeless people in Edmonton since 1999, and that census of the homeless suggests progress is being made.

The count conducted on Oct. 15 and 16, 2012, indicated there were 2,174 homeless individuals in the city, including 223 dependent children – down from 2,421 in 2010 and well over 3,000 in 2008.

But such advances are easily derailed by Alberta’s perpetually mismanaged boom-and-bust economy, which as the Edmonton Homeless Commission notes, attracts immigrants to the region who expect work will be easy to find and discover a much tougher reality.

Moreover, while some progress is clear, the severity of the problem may not be. Homeless numbers are naturally difficult to pin down with confidence, and there have long been rumours – never confirmed – of a policy by Edmonton city officials enacted with the assistance of local police to roust homeless people from known camping spots in the North Saskatchewan River Valley the nights before the annual homeless count.

Regardless, it’s really former premier Ed Stelmach who deserves credit for moving the issue of homelessness to the front burner and ensuring funding began flowing into housing – an initiative that insiders attribute to the former premier’s strong Ukrainian Catholic religious faith.

But with Ms. Redford in the premier’s office – and the far-right Wildrose Party really driving the province’s policy bus – there should be serious concern that policies influenced by Mr. Stelmach’s social gospel worldview will turn out to have fallen on stony ground, where they sprang up quickly but did not take root.

As Albertans now know, the PCs’ commitment to “sustainable and predictable funding” for essential provincial programs turned out to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

In the face of a downward fluctuation in petroleum prices and the entirely foreseeable Wildrose Party screeches about the horror of deficits and the need for immediate cuts, Ms. Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner seem to have immediately caved.

Both parties are now dominated by neoconservatives, after all, with agendas that are not strikingly different on most counts.

We’ll know more when the Budget Speech is read on March 7. But as this is written, Alberta Health Services employees are braced for an announcement of significant reductions in the government’s promised 4.5-per-cent funding increase that was supposed to ensure health care in Alberta could operate on a sustainable predictable basis.

When the inevitable impact of what will in effect be a significant cut in the face of population growth and inflation begins to be felt, stand by for the usual calls from the Wildrose benches for more privatization and delisting of services as a solution.

That the Wildrose Party would end up setting the agenda for Alberta anyway was always the danger when the Redford PCs persuaded large numbers of progressive voters to support them in keeping Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith out of the premier’s office.

Now that this is coming to pass, it is hard to imagine that the Third World conditions among this province’s poor will not grow worse as a result.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

7 Comments on "Edmonton’s homeless shelters home to body lice, ‘refugee-camp-like conditions’"

  1. SilentBob says:

    Dr. Houston issued similar warnings during the syphillis outbreak a few years back. For the first time, Alberta physicians began diagnosis an increasing number of congenital infections – also uncommon outside of developing countries. He was censured for speaking out (vexatious complaints were brought against him with the College of Physicians and Surgeons) and then-health minister Ron Liepert put an abrupt end to a public awareness campaign about syphillis. Pressure from opposition parties and the medical community eventually led to the development of a renewed campaign: the widely successful and award-winning “Plenty of Siph” offering. Looking back, it makes one wonder whether, this time, the province might do itself a favour and heed Dr. Houston’s warnings.

  2. Sam Gunsch says:

    But hey: “they don’t starve do they!” i.e. We’ve got food banks for them.

    Or so I was told by a comfortable rural Albertan after I pointed to what many see as a paradox of Alberta’s supposed oil/bitumen riches, shared with us via the generosity of our Calgary office/corporate powers that be…

    versus the obvious poverty given the need for food banks in rural Alberta.

    …as per the gist of this blog post.

    “they don’t starve do they?”

    What can you say to that?

    Sam Gunsch

  3. ronmac says:

    This is timely. Especially with that luxury cruise ship adrift in Caribbean this week. We were getting up to the minute news reports of passengers trapped in a “floating petri dish” of raw sewage, without sanitation facilities, without air conditioning and having to wait for hours for something to eat. I was half expecting a breaking bulletin of “unconfirmed reports” of lice being found on some passengers.

    Those passengers would be shocked to learn that this was the norm for much of human history. A lot of people in the world today are still living in these conditions.

  4. Alvin Finkel says:

    Dave, you mention that to be “fair,” the government’s spending on Homeward Trust and other such programs deserves to be noted. What really deserves to be noted is that the Stelmach government, in an extensive report on homelessness in 2007,mentioned that a ten-year, $3.3 billion program, involving an expenditure by the province of $330 million a year, was needed to deal with the backlog created by the Klein government having ended all expenditure on public housing (in turn, a response in part to the Mulroney government’s decision to end such expenditures, a terrible decision that the Chretien government also followed as part of its neo-liberal program). But, faced with lower revenues in 2008 thanks to the recession, Stelmach decided that less than a third of what had been promised for housing would actually be spent that year. The same decision has been made every year since. And so it’ll be no surprise to this government that their programs in housing are barely making a dent on homelessness; they are limiting the growth in homelessness that would occur if they did nothing, but not reducing the homeless rates. Note that Jim Gurnett pointed out in the Edmonton Journal that the recent homeless count for Edmonton, which suggested a modest reduction in that count, was flawed. So, the provincial government will not be surprised that homelessness continues to fester and that its consequences are getting worse. They made a conscious decision to let that happen after their own officials told them what would happen if they did not inject about $330 million a year to deal with the problem. The 2007 report noted that the long-term costs of not dealing with homelessness are far greater than the short-term savings that result from doing nothing or very little. Unfortunately the horizons of most governments are short term.

  5. Alex P says:

    This newly discovered crisis is a part of why it costs more to keep someone homeless than to provide a space to sleep, sanitation, and maybe someone to knock on doors and yell, did you remember your meds?

    Instead, we commit to paying for medical emergencies, contact with police, and overcrowded shelters. http://goo.gl/CPcQj

  6. Hal L. Monitor says:

    The unions won’t like it, but if Brad Wall’s (extremely popular) Saskatchewan government is anything to go by, a Wildrose government would actually do more for the homeless than these Conservatives ever will. At least, my friends in Saskatchewan (who are NOT right wingers) tell me Wall spends more money on programs for the desperately poor than the NDP ever did.

  7. Alvin Finkel says:

    Nonsense, Hal L. Monitor. While Brad Wall’s government is to the right of the Saskatchewan NDP, its taxation policies are to the left of all of the Alberta parties, judging by what they proposed in the 2012 provincial election. Income tax in SK on the first $42,906 of taxable income is 11%; then it’s 13% on the next $79,683; after which it rises to 15% on income over $122,589. There’s also a 4% sales tax. So there’s enough money collected to spend more on homelessness per capita than AB does. Wildrose only has policies for cutting our provincial taxes, and has never suggested spending more money on any social program. So the comparison of SK and AB is simply without merit; their political culture is quite different, if only because the alternative governing party is left-leaning. Wall may be bad news for the unions, but he has been careful, in terms of social policy and revenue policy, not to move very far from where the NDP was when it was in power in SK.

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