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Edmonton looking at options to help those who use transit to stay warm during COVID-19 crisis

City of Edmonton restricts dog park access, dealing with homeless loitering on transit
WATCH ABOVE: The City of Edmonton is taking new measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as limiting dog park access and looking at converting lanes on some roads into sidewalks. As Vinesh Pratap explains, transit is also now dealing with safety issues from homeless people loitering on busses and trains.

The City of Edmonton began offering free public transit service as part of its response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in March.

Now, combined with the fact that the places the city’s vulnerable usually use to warm up have been closed, the city says members of the homeless population are riding transit all day.

“With the choices for our vulnerable populations and youth becoming narrower and narrower, we’re seeing these groups turn to transit as a solution for sheltering and gathering,” David Aitken, the chair of the city’s COVID-19 task team, said on Thursday.

Is physical distancing working on Edmonton transit?
Is physical distancing working on Edmonton transit?

The development has led to the city creating a new task force to help support “non-destination riders.”

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The task force is made up of a group of social service experts, the city said, and it has spent the last day brainstorming ideas.

READ MORE: COVID-19 costs to City of Edmonton likely between $27M and $112M: report

While there isn’t a long-term solution in place, the city says the task force has come up with a number of ways to support these riders.

First, the city will be adding train and bus security patrols to key locations.

“It’s important to note that we’re using a lot of the data that we’ve gathered over the last two weeks to understand how our travel patterns have changed and shifted and reorganizing the way that we deploy not only our security guards but also our TPO [transit peace officer] force,” Eddie Robar, branch manager of the Edmonton Transit Service, said.
Edmonton transit dealing with unpredictable mischief and crime in new places
Edmonton transit dealing with unpredictable mischief and crime in new places

In an effort to protect all who are riding transit, the city has also redeployed some transit staff to ensure the system is as clean as possible. The LRT cars are being cleaned at the end of the line at every trip, Robar said.

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As well, the city is working working with the Neighbourhood Empowerment Team – a partnership with the city, Edmonton police, Family Centre, the United Way and REACH – to work with these non-destination riders to make sure they can get the appropriate supports.

More security, cleaning staff on ETS trains and busses; shuttles for homeless
More security, cleaning staff on ETS trains and busses; shuttles for homeless

Transit drivers can now contact the control centre to identify routes with higher rates of these riders.

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Starting Friday, there will also be service between the temporary overnight shelter at the Kinsmen Sports Centre and the Edmonton Expo Centre, which is operating as an expanded drop-in centre.

Bus service will start at around 7 a.m. when the overnight shelter at the Kinsmen closes, Robar said.

Shuttle between EXPO and Kinsmen for vulnerable population
Shuttle between EXPO and Kinsmen for vulnerable population

While these changes are short-term, Robar said the new task force continues to meet to make sure these riders are supported.

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“Every day is changing and evolving as we go through this and we’re certainly looking to react quickly, be flexible and ensure we’re putting this safe service on the road,” Robar said.

READ MORE: Kinsmen being used as expanded overnight shelter for Edmonton homeless

In an effort to protect all riders and city staff, Robar said there are now shields installed on every bus in operation. The city already suspended fares and implemented rear-door boarding in an effort to minimize contact.

But, he added, there’s more all the city’s residents can do.

“Please only travel when you need to,” Robar said. “Stay off the buses unless it’s an essential trip for yourself or to work or you need to go get groceries.

A bigger issue

Branch manager of social development, Jackie Ford, said the issues the city is reacting to are actually part of a bigger, more widespread problem.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Kenney says Edmonton Expo Centre will be used for vulnerable population

She said council has been asking for more support for Edmonton’s vulnerable population for years. Because those supports aren’t there, and their usual warm-up locations of malls, libraries, rec centres and even city hall, have been closed, they’re resorting to other solutions.

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“Folks with no place to call home have found a warm place on our transit system,” she said.

Homeless people on transit because there’s nowhere else to go: City of Edmonton
Homeless people on transit because there’s nowhere else to go: City of Edmonton

“This is a social issue. It’s not an enforcement issue. This is a time for all the kindness and compassion that Edmontonians have to be used.

“We need to understand, all of us, that our fellow citizens need support during this difficult time.”

Ford said the Expo centre is seeing about 600 unique visits to its drop-in shelter facilities a day. At last count, there were about 1,600 homeless people in Edmonton.

Homeless people on transit because there’s nowhere else to go: City of Edmonton
Homeless people on transit because there’s nowhere else to go: City of Edmonton

According to Aitken, a second hall has been opened to ensure there is proper physical distancing for all who are at the facility.

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