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Number of homeless Edmontonians has doubled; city facing lack of shelter space this winter

Click to play video: 'Homeless encampments on the rise in Edmonton'
Homeless encampments on the rise in Edmonton
WATCH (Oct 29): After a steady decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll. As Sarah Komadina explains, more people are living rough and many are turning to building encampments in the river valley – Oct 29, 2021

The number of people struggling with homelessness in Edmonton has doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from Homeward Trust.

There are now about 2,800 people with no permanent home, a number that has doubled since the end of 2019.

Prior to the pandemic, the city had made progress in assisting those without homes, housing more than 13,000 people since 2009, and the number of homeless Edmontonians fell to 1,300.

But over the last 20 months, the pandemic has seen those numbers soar. It’s widened the gaps in support and public health restrictions have also challenged shelter capacity. There’s been fewer overnight shelters, less access to public spaces and more encampments.

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In a report on Tuesday, Edmonton councillors were told that administration is projecting even fewer emergency shelter beds will be available this winter than last winter.

In fact, the projections show a gap of about 350 shelter beds. Local shelters need at least 1,200 beds to make it through the winter.

“If that need is not met, we will have Edmontonians sleeping outside in the winter… and that is unacceptable,” Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said.

“It is my understanding that we are short about 350 shelter spaces in the city… that’s something we’ve stressed to the premier and the minister.”

Click to play video: 'Rossdale residents react to people refusing to leave the Camp Pekiwewin homeless encampment'
Rossdale residents react to people refusing to leave the Camp Pekiwewin homeless encampment

Currently, there are 720 emergency shelter beds funded by the province. But that funding is set to expire at the end of November.

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The government of Alberta funds overnight and 24/7 shelter services. Provincial funding goes to agencies like Hope Mission, Herb Jamieson, The Mustard Seed, the women’s emergency shelter and the Spectrum shelter, which then manage the sites and operations.

Four agencies have funding requests in to the government of Alberta. They’re asking the province to:

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  • Extend funding for Hope Mission to continue to operate Spectrum for the winter (currently set to close at the end of November)
  • Provide funding to The Mustard Seed to operate three southside churches for the winter (currently closed and would need to reactivate)
  • Provide funding to an operator to operate Commonwealth Stadium for the winter
Click to play video: 'Edmonton mayor announces new housing facility to replace homeless camps over the winter'
Edmonton mayor announces new housing facility to replace homeless camps over the winter

Councillors Andrew Knack and Aaron Paquette expressed frustration that the city was stepping up to address an issue that is the provincial government’s responsibility.

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“We’re trying to solve a problem that we can’t solve ourselves,” Knack said.

Paquette said this is a clear mental health and health crisis and there are jurisdictional issues.

“This is a priority issue for Edmontonians and they do not, by and large, have an understanding of… the jurisdictional powers,” he said.

“We don’t have the powers, by law, and we certainly don’t have the money.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 patient speaks out about concerns at Edmonton Convention Centre'
COVID-19 patient speaks out about concerns at Edmonton Convention Centre

A news conference is scheduled for noon on Wednesday that will include Premier Jason Kenney and Community and Social Services Minister Jason Luan. A news release says they “will announce funding and new steps being taken to help support Albertans experiencing homelessness and domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A funding commitment from the province would help address the gap in emergency shelter beds.

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“I’m very optimistic that the conversation I had with the premier and Minister Luan will result in some conclusions, and we’re hoping for some good news,” Sohi said Tuesday. “I’m encouraged by the tone of collaboration and I look forward to tomorrow’s announcement.

“These are interim solutions,” he added. “We need long-term solutions.”

The city has provided $1.6 million to the Bissell Centre, The Mustard Seed, and Boyle Street Community Services to extend daytime shelter services until the end of 2021. The funds will extend day-service contracts for shelters that were set to expire at the end of November until the end of the year.

The money will allow people to access meals, showers, clothing, laundry, hygiene items and harm-reduction supplies, as well as mental health, addictions, cultural and housing support services. Administration is recommending council spend a total of $3.5 million to extend those day services through winter until April 2022. That request will be deliberated on Nov. 22.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton Convention Centre shelter capacity questioned as homeless camps close for the winter'
Edmonton Convention Centre shelter capacity questioned as homeless camps close for the winter

“We’re obviously concerned,” said Christel Kjenner, director of Affordable Housing and Homelessness with the city. “The reason we’re at council today is we’d identified this gap.”

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Kjenner explained the city is hoping the province will offer support in the form of additional shelter capacity for up to 350 people. Four operators have pending funding requests — like the south-side church shelters being operated by the Mustard Seed, the Hope Mission operating Spectrum.

She also hopes the province suggests additional ways to close the gap. The city has offered temporary emergency shelter space at Commonwealth Stadium — which could accommodate 150 beds — and in the Spectrum shelter, which is operated by Hope Mission and currently scheduled to close at the end of November.

“This crisis is becoming more pressing as temperatures continue to drop,” Sohi said.

“The city is trying to do its part but we cannot do this alone.”

During extreme weather events, city resources will be used to open temporary 24/7 emergency shelter space and expand overnight transportation when thresholds for shelter system capacity and severe weather are met.

So, if there is an extreme cold warning, the city steps in, expanding shelter capacity and running free buses from transit stations to shelters to keep vulnerable Edmontonians out of the cold.

“It’s just terrifying that people could be sleeping on the street,” Sohi said.

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