Edmonton councillors have unanimously approved a one-time $7.5-million increase in funding for additional winter homeless shelter space in the west end — even though it isn’t the city’s job to do so.
The Alberta government is responsible for funding shelter spaces in the province.
“We need to show to the province that we are trying to fill those gaps and we are compassionate people, that we still stand up and show up for Edmontonians,” Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said when making his pitch to pass the motion.
The funding approved Wednesday is coming from the city’s financial stabilization reserve fund that is used to address emergency situations.
“I would call this a critical need, even though it is not the city’s core responsibility to provide shelter,” Sohi said. “But we need to step up in the absence of not having enough shelters available from the province.”
The mayor said people are dying on the streets on a regular basis: Edmonton Fire Rescue Services and the Edmonton Police Service have confirmed the deaths of four people in homeless encampments and another person was found dead Tuesday night on city streets.
“This is a crisis that we are facing,” a subdued Sohi said about the known numbers, adding there are even more deaths that are unaccounted for.
“All of them are preventable deaths.”
As has been the case at several council meetings, councillors again on Wednesday expressed disappointment that the conversation about how to address homelessness during winter months comes up every year, yet there do not seem to ever be long-term plans.
“People are dying because of willful policy failures, I am very happy we are doing what we can, “a tearful ward Dene Coun. Aaron Paquette said about the city stepping up.
The funding will help provide shelter for homeless and vulnerable people who don’t want to leave their west end community to seek space downtown, where most of Edmonton’s social services and shelters are located.
Sohi said the crisis weighs heavily on city council.
“We have a large number of our fellow neighbours, Edmontonians, who are sleeping rough. They’re sleeping outside in encampments or they don’t have a dignified shelter space to go to.”
Sohi said the new spaces will help make the community safer too.
“When people are desperate in -20 or -30 C, and they don’t have a place to go, they’re going to break into somebody’s car, or they’re going to break into somebody’s business to just warm up, or they’re going to break into transit centres.”
The new spaces would be inside a small hotel near Stony Plain Road and 154 Street, operated by Jasper Place Wellness Centre.
A community health centre will also work in partnership with the hotel to provide additional supports. The operation cost for the 150 congregate and 59 private rooms will be $7.5 million over six months.
“We’ll fund if it’s about life and death,” said ward Karhiio Coun. Keren Tang.
“And at this point, it is about life and death.”
In October, the Alberta government agreed to pay to open another 450 temporary shelter beds, to add to the 622 permanent emergency spaces already available in the city.
As of Wednesday, 350 have already opened and council heard the final 100 are in the process of coming online, so by mid-December there will be 1,072 spaces available.
The 209 spaces at the west Edmonton facility would bring that total up to 1,281 beds.
Councillors were told Wednesday 156 people got on warming buses to be transported to overnight shelters Tuesday night, however, 118 people refused help and stayed out in the cold.
According to data collected by Homeward Trust, as of Nov. 28 there were 2,750 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton — only 16 per cent (433 people) of whom are using shelters.
Another 30 per cent, or 821 people, are outdoors, while 51 per cent are provisionally accommodated and the final three per cent are unaccounted for.
On Wednesday, council also unanimously approved a motion brought forward by Sohi requesting an emergency meeting with the province on the city’s shelter situation.
“We are building a relationship with the new premier and and her cabinet,” Sohi said, adding the city has had productive meetings with Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz and Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jeremy Nixon.
The city’s homeless population doubled over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am deeply concerned by the ongoing and increasing issue of homelessness in Edmonton,” Nixon said in a statement Wednesday.
“These individuals are Albertans in need of immediate and urgent support. That is why Alberta’s government was addressing this issue months ago when we announced $187 million to help alleviate the homelessness and mental health and addictions crisis in Alberta.”
On Oct. 1, former premier Jason Kenney announced the province would fund an additional $63 million in supports for homelessness, and an additional $124 million for addictions between the two cities over the next two years.
Nixon said the province’s response was proactive by opening 450 additional spaces, and also reactive by quickly working to open as many as 150 new spaces “in the near future.”
“This means that for this winter, our government will have opened as many as 600 emergency spaces in Edmonton, nearly doubling the amount the city has year round.”
The mayor said he wants to see all the ministries come together to come up with sustainable, permanent solutions.
“We should not be looking at 11th-hour solutions to these critical situations — and we see this every winter,” Sohi said.
“This problem is not going to go away. We are not going to end the houseless(ness) itself in the next year or two years.”
Nixon said addressing homelessness is a priority for the provincial government.
“I am confident that if we continue in a partnership with the City of Edmonton, not only will we be able to address concerns for this winter, but also come up with long-term solutions in helping people overcome homelessness.”
“We will do whatever it takes to keep people safe and warm.”
During the cold snap from Nov. 9-10, shelters were 98 per cent full — 812 of 827 beds filled. Another 408 people were using transit stations and were subsequently removed as part of the city’s safety strategy.