Don Iveson doesn’t understand why the province won’t work with Edmonton on supportive housing initiatives.
“We see this issue of homelessness quite differently, to my consternation,” the mayor said after the Alberta budget was tabled.
“But we’ll continue to work to try to persuade the government of Alberta that it’s in their fiscal interest to break the cycle of homelessness for more people.
“It’s an issue of fairness that’s really not appropriate to leave to the taxpayers of Edmonton.”
“I do think it is a failure on their part to take advantage of the evidence-based best practice with respect to providing housing,” Iveson said.
“The stubbornness around this I just don’t understand.”
Iveson said he was meeting with Alberta ministers later Thursday and would share his disappointment with Premier Jason Kenney when he next spoke with him.
“For a budget focused on health, recovery and finding savings, I am confounded and disappointed the province is still not prepared to work with Edmonton on supportive housing,” the mayor said in a statement.
Read more: Highlights from Alberta budget 2021
“Supportive housing not only ensures individuals with complex needs get off the street and into a safe home.
“We have evidence that housing reduces costs to health, justice and law enforcement budgets — right when the province needs to find these efficiencies the most.”
Alberta’s 2021 budget sets aside $209 million for housing as well as family and social supports. The government expects to spend just over half, about $110 million, in 2021-22.
While more details will hopefully be forthcoming, the government has promised new funding for 500 shelter spaces in Edmonton and Red Deer.
“More shelters are not the solution,” Iveson said, “and will not get the health-care cost savings associated with proper housing.
“The government of Alberta’s failure to work with Edmonton on supportive housing for vulnerable people, a failure to follow evidence showing the substantial savings in areas of provincial jurisdiction like healthcare, is truly frustrating for the people experiencing homelessness during a pandemic.”
The mayor said Edmonton was asking the province for $5.9 million in 2021 to operate the supportive housing units that the city and federal government are already building using funds from the Rapid Housing Initiative.
That $5.9 million, Iveson said, would “more than pay for itself in reduced interactions with the criminal justice and health care systems” and would save the province millions more.
Through the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative, the city already has construction funding approved for two of five supportive housing sites, which offer affordable housing along with health and social supports.
Edmonton officials were hoping the province would step up with operational funding.
“That money is required to provide rent subsidies for people to make the housing affordable, and also to fund those on-site health and social supports, things like nurses, social workers, that sort of thing,” explained Christel Kjenner, Edmonton’s director of Affordable Housing and Homelessness.
But the money was not in the provincial budget.
The city wants to start construction this year and also open the housing sites later this year.
“Because they won’t be opening until the end of the year, there’s still an opportunity for the province to come to the table and work with us,” Kjenner said.
She says the city needs 900 units of supportive housing. These five sites represent 210 units.
If the money doesn’t come from the province, officials might have to consider pulling funding from other programs for vulnerable people.
The CEO of the Bissell Centre was happy to hear about the Jobs Now program but said he needs more details on how it will work.
About 60 to 65 per cent of Bissell’s budget comes directly or indirectly from the province. While the 2021 budget doesn’t appear to have made any cuts to that amount, it also hasn’t grown.
“We’re seeing really significant increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time because of the pandemic and the economic fallout, and so really, being able to just sustain supports is not enough,” Gary St. Amand said Friday.
St. Amand echoes the mayor’s assertions: the solution to homelessness is housing; not shelters.
“It makes good, long-term sense to invest in housing, invest in supportive housing.”
In terms of other aspects of the budget, Iveson said the province has confirmed support for the 50th Street rail crossing, the West Valley Line and maintained earmarked money for the South Capital Line LRT extension.
“I appreciate the continued recognition that these projects are important city-building initiatives that will generate significant economic benefits for our city and Alberta while also ensuring we’re working towards Edmontonians’ economic recovery, climate goals, health and quality of life.”
However, the mayor is very concerned about a 25 per cent cut over three years to the Municipal Sustainability Fund.
The budget shows MSI will receive $1.2 billion in 2021-22 before seeing that figure drop to $485 million in 2022-23 and 2023-24. The MSI funding is frontloaded in the three-year plan in order to help cities with the COVID-19 economic recovery and to prepare for the phasing out of MSI, which will be replaced with a new program in 2024-25.
Iveson said the MSI cuts will erode any COVID-19 stimulus the city received. MSI covers a lot of infrastructure projects that “supports job creation” and ensure Edmonton is “building and maintaining the infrastructure that is essential to recovery and a thriving economy.”
City staff are currently looking into what projects might be at risk.
“This leaves municipalities with really difficult decisions to make when we’ve already absorbed considerable cuts to our infrastructure transfers in previous years to help deal with the fiscal challenges Alberta was facing,” Iveson said.
It will mean fewer jobs, he stressed.
“There will be a pro-cyclical — which is not a good thing in economic terms — negative impact on jobs in 2022 and 2023 of these cuts and those are permanent and ongoing cuts in the fiscal framework that follows and that will have an impact on jobs.
“I think this is a short-sighted move.”