A new support system for Edmonton’s vulnerable population is back on track after receiving the ‘go ahead’ it needed from the city and reaching a major fundraising milestone.
Boyle Street Community Services (BSCS) announced Tuesday that it will be moving ahead with its Okimaw Peyesiw Kamik (OPK), also called King Thunderbird Centre, after getting the Class-A development permit needed to develop the health facility and headquarters in downtown Edmonton. The headquarters will be the new admin workspace for over 150 employees.
The centre will serve as one of BSCS’s 17 locations and while it is not a shelter, it will provide supports to thousands of people across Edmonton.
“This project has broad-based support and has been guided by Indigenous leaders and knowledge keepers,” said Boyle Street executive director Jordan Reiniger.
“We know that the number of individuals experiencing homeless in our city has doubled since the pandemic, and we are now presenting Edmontonians an opportunity to support a project that will be part of the solution.”
The organization also reached 80 per cent of its $28.5 million fundraising goal, not including government money, needed to go through with the project.
Boyle Street first purchased the property at 107A Avenue and 101 Street in 2021 after receiving a $10 million donation from the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation.
“There are a lot of challenges that people who are vulnerable are experiencing on the streets of Edmonton. This is part of the solution for those challenges: giving them a place to go, giving them the services that they need to move forward,” said Reiniger.
“(It’s) addressing the root causes, rather than sort of pushing the challenges around.”
They have also received a lot of guidance from First Nations leaders and knowledge keepers on how to best go forward with the project and provide the best possible services to the community.
For the time being, kitchen facilities and ceremonial spaces have been removed from the current plan, but BSCS plans to work with city council to add them later, a Boyle Street spokesperson told Global News.
While BSCS still needs to fulfill 20 per cent of its funding goal, it can now move forward with the construction phase of the project, Reiniger said.
One of the goals is to create a building that is beautiful and welcoming, where people can come off the streets and feel loved and appreciated, he said.
Concerns from area businesses
Donna Robillard was homeless years ago and she used Boyle Street services to help get her back on her feet. Now, she provides arts and crafts workshops there for the community.
“My daughter taught me how to do beading when I came clean. It’s like a medicine, a healing process,” she said.
She said her wakeup call to get off the streets came when her body started shutting down.
“It was live or die, so I chose to live a better way and I came to the Boyle Street for help.”
The project was delayed after the city’s subdivision appeal board revoked its development permit. During the hearing, 16 appellants voiced concerns about moving Boyle Street Community Services two blocks over to the new location.
Appellants included parents of students who attend the nearby Victoria School, Chinatown business community members the Ukrainian federation and Fukienese Association.
Anthony Hai, owner of Albert’s Autobody in Chinatown and co-chair of the Chinese Business Improvement Area Association, said there are some concerns about how the new facility is going to impact the Chinatown community.
The new facility is several blocks away from the current location and will really impact pedestrian flow along 101 Street from Kingsway all the way down to 104 Avenue, Hai said.
With other shelters and services in the neighbourhood, Hai’s concerned this is going to be the “death of our Chinatown community.”
Following several violent and deadly events in Chinatown last year, the city promised the community it would reduce the concentration of shelters in the neihgborhood, he said, but now they’re allowing another big centre to open.
“What does that say to the public?” Hai asked. “Does it mean the city is going back on its word on trying to deconcentrate? It seems so, but at the same time… I don’t want to leave all these vulnerable people without a home.”
The conundrum revolves around being a good neighbour and also preserving the community, the businesses and livelihoods of the people in Chinatown, Hai said.
“Does the rest of the city realize we are pretty well on life support right now?”
The Chinatown business community has dropped significantly over the past several years. Three years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were roughly 250 businesses in the neighbourhood. Now there are about half that, Hai said.
Proximity to school in question
The new centre is located across the street from Victoria School of the Arts, where Mike van Boom’s child is in Grade 11.
He said himself and other parents are trying to be constructive but they have serious concerns that they feel need to be addressed, including drug use, general disorder and cleanliness.
“We’ve heard terrible stories from parents and from kids that they’ll get off the bus, and the bus station has been taken hostage by a few folks who are shooting up in there. There’s a cloud of meth coming out and they have to walk through that cloud on the way to school,” he said.
His daughter and other kids have been subject to bullying, harassment and being chased by folks who live on the street, he said.
Van Boom and his wife have worked, both professionally and privately as community members, with the vulnerable populations, but he said the latest surge has been a tipping point.
“I have personally enormous appreciation for Boyle Street Community Services. My wife has worked for them before, too. We deeply love a lot of the folks that are there, but the decision to move this in such close proximity to a school … is a very poor choice of location,” he said.
It’s not about rejecting the facility, it’s about finding a different location, van Boom said.
“We want to build real solutions for people.”
— With files from Sarah Komadina, Global News