Portions of the Commonwealth rec centre facility could be opened up during extreme cold snaps and made available to those struggling with homelessness, the city said.
Officials with Homeward Trust and the city’s housing and homelessness department shared more details about the Winter Emergency Response Plan on Tuesday.
“During extreme weather periods, such as the one we’re anticipating later this week, there’s alternate levels of escalation in that response,” said Christel Kjenner, director of housing and homelessness with the city.
“One potential level of escalation will be the City of Edmonton will make available additional emergency shelter at the Commonwealth rec centre facility.
The city said it’s responding to a need that’s been identified by Homeward Trust and other stakeholders.
“It’s important that people seek services at the facilities that are best able to meet their needs,” Kjenner said.
“We look at encouraging people to use those facilities first, but if they run up against capacity issues because more people are seeking shelter inside, and are no longer able to accommodate the need, that’s when we’ll activate our protocol.”
That decision is based on a combination of factors, including weather forecasts, temperature and shelter capacity. If needed, an area of Commonwealth will be made available.
“We will be opening a self-contained portion of the facility,” Kjenner said. “The fieldhouse facility is where we’re planning to accommodate folks.
“Currently we’re planning for capacity of 36, however, there’s room to expand. That number is based on historical trends related to last year’s use of the LRT overnight population numbers.”
A public advisory will be released if protocol is triggered and the Commonwealth site opened. The advisory will also include transit options.
“In addition to the shelter capacity, we’ll also be providing transportation options to help people who may have trouble accessing typical methods of transportation,” Kjenner said.
“ETS will be providing a bus service. Details related to the operation of that facility, and the transportation options to serve that facility, will be made available should that protocol be triggered.”
Forecasts show the Edmonton area will plunge into a deep freeze this week, dipping from about -20 C on Tuesday to -28 C on Thursday.
Last year, during a cold snap, the city opened up LRT stations overnight, but Global News has learned that will not happen in the coming days.
Kjenner said there will be staff at LRT stations to direct people to shelters, transit options, and Commonwealth, when it’s open.
She also pointed out that all city rec centres, as well as libraries, are places people can always seek refuge during very cold snaps. Edmonton Transit and shelters operate warming buses and express bus routes will make more frequent stops when temperatures dip to -20 C.
Keeping the LRT stations open during extreme cold was debated by city council last winter. At the time, Ward 3 Councillor Jon Dziadyk said closing stations seemed cruel to him.
“That’s a strong word,” he said on Tuesday. “When we know for certain that they’re not going to go to the homeless shelters — which should be the number one location for them to go to, and we need to do a better job to connect the homeless population with the services that are available — but that’s a conversation to be had not during a time of crisis.
“As the weather begins to plunge now, it’s a different conversation. So I think that not utilizing this infrastructure could be seen as cruel.”
However, there were reports of violence in LRT stations, which were not equipped with adequate services or trained workers.
Dziadyk recognizes using LRT stations as shelters is not the ideal solution.
“The ideal location for the homeless to be in during extreme cold is in the homeless shelter and I do understand that there’s often extra beds available.
“But, for whatever reason, segments of the homeless population will not go into our homeless shelters. So it’s incumbent upon the city to protect their most vulnerable.
“It’s existing infrastructure that we have and it’s located right where the homeless population is.”
Dziadyk said getting to an LRT station might be easier than Commonwealth.
“We are a winter city and I would expect that the solutions to be brought forward would, one: look to utilize existing infrastructure and two: sort of be the path of least resistance that would get the job done.”
“Commonwealth does sound like an interesting idea,” Councillor Scott McKeen said.
“It would be within walking distance for some people from the social service agencies in the area, so it sounds to me like a good idea.
“There would be considerable other amenities available for use, whether that’s kitchen or washroom, so I think it would be better. There’s no bunk beds in the place or anything but we could probably look after that.”
“The reason the city is reticent about opening LRT stations as sort of respite centres is because there’s not much in the way of amenities there,” McKeen added. “There might be washrooms but they’re not extensive, they’re cold. Sleeping on the floor of the LRT station: not exactly ideal.”
He also said the city continues to work with the Hope Mission, which usually runs at about 30 per cent vacancy.
“The word we get is the Hope Mission shelter is not full ever,” McKeen said. “We know from the city’s own research that there’s some people who just won’t go there for various reasons.”
Last year, Homeward Trust was concerned that opening the LRT stations sometimes but not always would create inconsistency of service, which could be problematic.
“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.
In winter 2017-18, 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.”
McGee said even the Commonwealth site has its own set of concerns. It’s not permanent nor ideal.
“In the long run, housing is what we need to be focusing on.”
She said Edmonton’s Winter Emergency Response Plan has been in place since 2006. In earlier years, additional facilities were opened during the winter but this step hasn’t been required in about five years.
Kjenner said any costs associated with the Commonwealth site would be accommodated in the existing operational budget.