Editor’s note: This story originally stated city council approved the increased funding. However, it was a city committee that approved the idea. The motion still needs full support from council, which is scheduled to be debated later this month. Global News regrets the error.
In an emotional executive committee meeting Wednesday, Edmonton councillors supported an increase in funding for additional winter shelter space, but not before expressing frustrations with the lack of planning and delayed timelines for solutions to help the city’s most vulnerable population.
City officials proposed a solution to the winter shelter crisis: a small hotel, operated by Jasper Place Wellness Centre, which would province a total of 209 spaces. A community health centre would also work in partnership with the hotel to provide additional supports. The operation cost for the 150 congregate and 59 private rooms would be $7.5 million over six months.
According to data collected by Homeward Trust, as of this month, there are 2,706 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton — only 16 per cent of whom are using shelters. Thirty per cent are outdoors, 51 per cent are provisionally accommodated and the final three per cent are unaccounted for.
The additional space proposed Wednesday would provide the opportunity for every person experiencing houselessness to have a place to stay, if they choose. It would also provide shelter to the west-end houseless populations who don’t want to leave their community to find a shelter space downtown.
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the city was hoping that the shelter spaces the province promised in the fall would have been filled by now, as temperatures have already dropped and winter is creeping in. The delays have, in part, been caused by lack of staffing for the shelters, and waiting on the completion of renovations for the shelter spaces.
“Does the province understand … this constant piecemeal approach, which they seem to be taking every single year — and in some cases, no year at all — is causing some of this challenge? The fact that we can’t get staff in these places is no wonder because, you know, if you’re guaranteed a job for three or four or five months, vs. somebody who can get a permanent job … this is part of the ongoing struggle we’re dealing with every year,” said ward Nakota Isga Coun. Andrew Knack.
“We’re hearing about the folks dying on our streets right now … and it’s getting frustrating to see this year after year,” said Knack.
During the cold snap from Nov. 9-10, shelters were 98 per cent full — 812 of 827 beds filled. Another 408 people were using transit stations and were subsequently removed, as part of the city’s safety strategy.
Data from last winter shows that night shelters saw highest occupancy rates were some of the coldest nights of the winter.
Depending on the night, city officials have seen anywhere from 150-400 people in transit spaces seeking shelter and warmth already this season.
“This was not unforeseeable to me,” said ward Anirniq Coun. Erin Rutherford.
She said these concerns were something that she expressed back in September, and that, if the problem wasn’t address properly and immediately, we would be in the situation we are in now.
And now, due to pushback from the provincial government — which is responsible for funding shelter spaces — the city said it is shifting its budget to accommodate what the province would not provide.
“What is the price tag of dignity?” Rutherford asked of the province.
“We can’t continually bankroll a systemic issue that is outside of our jurisdiction,” she said. “We need to look at how we can help to decrease the number of homeless people and start to really address the issue for the long term.”
Knack called out the premier, who announced Tuesday billions of dollars to help families struggling with inflation costs, all while the city is getting pushback over $7.5 million to help people who don’t have homes at all.
“If they used a fraction of their $13-billion surplus, every person in this province could have a home within a year.”
Frustrations were echoed by community services who are feeling the pressure of not having had a plan in place until now.
“It’s frustrating every winter (that) we have to wait to this point,” said Elliott Tanti, senior manager of communications and engagement at Boyle Street Community Services.
“We’re a winter city and we have almost 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in our city — we need to be planning for this year-round, and all the stakeholders need to be involved in those conversations so it’s not last minute things.”
Tanti said he’s glad to hear there is now a plan in place moving into the winter, but “it’s always a concern when encampments are being taken down, because the real issues here is where people are going to go next?
“Until we’re looking at substantive solutions for folks, we’re going to continue to see encampments all over Edmonton.”
Shelters are just one piece of the housing puzzle, Tanti said.
“I think we need to be looking at this challenge more holistically and thinking about other things we could be doing.”
The recent shigella outbreak in Edmonton’s encampments also increased the urgency to find a solution for lack of winter shelters.
Alberta Health Services has detected over 170 cases of the virus in Edmonton, close to 70 per cent of which required hospitalization.
“We need to control the spread of this virus (so that) more houseless people are not impacted. And in order to do that we need to find appropriate places for people to go instead of living in the encampment … it’s very congregated, there’s no access to washrooms, access to sanitation. So we need to find places where people can go and have those supports available to them,” Sohi told Global News.
The city also started to dismantle encampments — which have received a lot of heat from Edmontonians over the past few years — Wednesday to try and stop the virus from spreading.
The city has received at least 8,000 complaints about encampments throughout the city — a 34 per cent increase compared to last year.
In the presentation to councillors, city officials said there will be additional funding to help reduce the spread of shigella.
“In coordination with AHS, the City of Edmonton has provided additional funding to expand he operation of the temporary washrooms, a shower, laundry facilities in response to the shigella outbreak,” city officials said.
Boyle Street has also been handing out sanitation kits for people, providing them with essentials they would need to stop the spread of shigella — a temporary fix until shelter spaces and additional supports are available.
While all councillors who spoke at the meeting expressed their support for the shelter proposal, they also asked for the province to step up and support Albertans who need help.
“I don’t want to be here again next year,” Sohi said, adding more transitional and permanent housing solutions need to be presented.
The proposed funding increase will be discussed at a city council meeting on Nov. 30.
— with files from Sarah Komadina, Global News
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