Edmonton·Updated

Alberta government announces $48M to support homeless during pandemic

Details on how the funds will be spent aren't known but the government says the money means isolation and care centres can continue to shelter people who are sick with, or have been exposed to, COVID-19 and have nowhere else to go.

Will ensure shelter for people who are sick with, or have been exposed to, COVID-19

A homeless camp set up under an overpass in Calgary in May. The Alberta government has announced $48 million in funding for shelters and community organizations that have been serving homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government has announced $48 million in funding for shelters and community organizations that have been serving homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money is an extension of $25 million announced in March to aid homeless people during the pandemic.

That money will run out at the end of August. The new funding is expected to boost shelter services until the end of March, next year.

Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney ​​​​​​ said on Wednesday the pandemic isn't going away any time soon, and the need for isolation spaces and extra shelter room persists — especially as cold fall and winter months loom.

"Our vulnerable populations are particularly high at risk. We must do everything we can to continue ensuring that they are protected," she said.

She said the money means isolation and care centres can continue to shelter people who are sick with, or have been exposed to, COVID-19 and have nowhere else to go. Eight isolation centres opened across Alberta also give symptomatic people a place to quarantine while they await test results.

Sawhney also says overflow shelter spaces will be needed to ensure there is adequate physical distancing, especially once the weather gets colder.

She says there are no plans to reactivate emergency satellite shelters at convention centres in Calgary and Edmonton that wound down earlier this summer. They were too expensive and the government wants a more affordable solution, she said.

Municipal leaders and organizations that aid homeless clients are anxious to see a longer-term solution as physical distancing rules dramatically limit how many people organizations can serve.

No new plan for Expo centre shelter replacement

The emergency shelter at Edmonton's Expo centre closed July 31, leaving hundreds of people looking elsewhere for food, shelter and medical services. Between 400 and 600 people a day were visiting the Expo centre.

The shelter opened as a daytime drop-in facility and emergency isolation shelter three months ago. Local agencies were forced to scale back their services due to COVID-19 and public health officials grew concerned about an outbreak among the city's homeless population.

Similarly, in Calgary, a temporary shelter and drop-in centre in the Telus Convention Centre closed in June.

An isolation centre still housing symptomatic people at the Expo centre will close on Aug. 14. Alberta Health Services, the Boyle McCauley Health Centre and the City of Edmonton are looking for somewhere people who are homeless can self-isolate if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

Sawhney said her department is working with municipal officials to try and find a longer-term solution to add shelter capacity and isolation space in Edmonton and Calgary, particularly for the winter months. She had no new details of those arrangements to share on Wednesday.

Although the government has plans to change the current model, Sawhney said in an interview that extra shelter space in cities such as Red Deer and Lethbridge may remain where they are.

NDP social services critic Marie Renaud said it was a mistake for the government to shut down the Expo and Telus centres without a transition plan.

Renaud said it's worrisome the congregate shelters shut down at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising again in the province.

"They shut it down and people are going to scatter all over the city to find what they need and that is exactly what you don't want to happen," she said.

The government needs to commit to a longer-term goal and plan to end homelessness, she said.

Edmonton's Expo Centre was seeing between 400 and 600 people a day when it was open as an emergency shelter and relief centre during the pandemic. The provincial government is now looking for new overflow space for shelters as the winter months approach and COVID-19 lingers. (Supplied by Ron Ramsay)

In a short statement, a City of Edmonton spokesperson said the city welcomes news of the additional funding.

"We know the more complex needs of individuals experiencing homelessness can be better supported by permanent supportive housing solutions in the longer term," the statement said.

Sawhney said her cabinet colleague, Seniors and Housing Minister Josephine Pon, is reviewing the sector and working with the federal government to develop longer-term solutions.

Agencies use funding to expand services, help with medical problems

Bruce Reith, executive director of Edmonton's Hope Mission, said his organization used the initial funding to open up two additional temporary locations and hire staff to work there.

Stephen Wile, CEO of the Mustard Seed, said the organization has been running about 600 beds during the pandemic and created 12 units where symptomatic people can isolate. Extra government funding has also paid for masks, gloves and gowns to help keep workers and clients safe.

He said keeping Hope's services staffed has been one of the biggest challenge during the pandemic. If they have cold symptoms, workers must stay away until a test can rule out COVID-19, he said.

People who are homeless can also have medical problems that require urgent intervention, he said.

Some shelters that previously had set hours used extra government funding to open around the clock during the pandemic. They can also use the new funding to provide daytime services such as laundry, showers, meals and referrals to other agencies.

According to the ministry of community and social services, about 2,700 people stayed in emergency shelters in an average night in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Twenty-five agencies receive provincial government grants to provide emergency shelter in Alberta.

— With files from Mirna Djukic and Andreane Williams

With files from The Canadian Press

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