*UPDATE: On Feb. 12, Edmonton Transit said, based on discussion with Homeward Trust, Central LRT Station would remain open 24/7 “for several more days so people can escape the extreme cold. Homeless shelters are still the first, and best, option.”
An Edmonton city councillor would like all LRT stations to be open 24 hours a day during extreme cold snaps in case those who are more vulnerable need a place to stay warm.
Aaron Paquette plans to bring the motion forward at city hall on Tuesday.
“People just need shelter and sometimes they don’t know where to go,” he said. “Or maybe they’re not even homeless; they’re just people who are cold and there has to be an expectation of consistency with the city that when it gets very cold… Our stations are already open 20 hours a day; we should extend that to 24 hours a day so that everyone has a chance to stay warm in emergency shelter, in those stations, if need be.”
Paquette said he didn’t have a specific temperature or windchill amount in mind yet but wanted councillors to discuss the options on Tuesday.
“The goal is that we don’t have anyone unsafe on our streets,” he said. “We need everyone to make it through the night alive.”
He agreed this isn’t the best solution. The best solution, Paquette said, is to offer people supports they need to address underlying issues and help get them on their feet.
“This is absolutely not the best alternative but it’s the alternative that will save lives,” he said. “Opening the LRT stations is literally the minimum we could do to help people out.”
A man was found dead in a green space just west of Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday morning.
Police said the death was not suspicious but did describe it as “weather-related.”
In Edmonton, roughly 1,900 people are considered homeless and there are just over 700 shelter spaces available, not including dedicated spaces like detox beds.
Homeward Trust explained some individuals who identify as homeless find places to stay when conditions are extreme. Some might couch surf, for instance. Others won’t use shelters for various reasons, including having a past experience that was negative in some way.
The policy, Homeward Trust said, is that once shelter occupancy in Edmonton reaches 90 per cent, Central LRT Station remains open overnight. But there are challenges with that too.
“If individuals think that LRT is a shelter option in our community and it’s not next week but it was this week, we can contribute to further risk by having things that are available some days and not on others,” CEO Susan McGee said.
“So we’re really thoughtful about when we decide that that’s something that’s really necessary,” she said. “Having said that, when it is, it is, and we’re certainly prepared to do that.”
Last year, even during the coldest periods, shelter capacity in Edmonton didn’t go over 75 per cent, Homeward Trust said.
“Shelter capacity matters, as well as weather, in terms of getting people to the shelter,” McGee said. “In the shelter they can get food, bedding, adequate supports. That’s just not going to be available at the same level and with the same training and response, in terms of staff, at an LRT at any time.”
On Tuesday, a decision was made to open Central LRT Station for the next week due to the extreme cold weather.
“The main point is the shelter system is the best place to accommodate folks in distress at any time, including especially when it’s this cold,” Mayor Don Iveson said. “The opening of the LRT system is really a last resort. The question is: what triggers that last resort? Is it the temperature itself or is it a capacity crunch within the system? And the answer is it’s both.”
Iveson said he’d rather leave the final decision to experts who work with vulnerable citizens but said if councillors want to weigh in on who ultimately makes that call, it’s their prerogative.
“There’s capacity in the shelter system, which is a much more suitable and supportive and safe environment for people than an LRT station, where we struggle to deliver security, we struggle with sanitation issues. Again, it’s really a last resort.”
“It’s not necessarily that a council motion is necessary for the protocol,” McGee said. “I think if there are resources that need to be directed by the city for the LRT as a city agency, those are things that are way outside our control or scope and I think those are things that can really come from council.”
Edmonton Transit said LRT stations are open 21 hours a day and if anyone is forced to seek shelter there during extreme weather, they won’t be kicked out for loitering and peace officers will work with social agencies to connect them with resources.