Boyle Street Community Services celebrates 50 years of helping homeless people in Edmonton

While the pandemic has made celebrations difficult to plan, Boyle Street Community Services is launching a new section of its website to share 50 years of stories and successes.

New website launches to celebrate half-century of stories

An undated photo of Boyle Street staff members at its location in the former O.K. Steam Bath Hotel, where it was housed from 1977 until 1986. (Submitted by Boyle Street Community Services)

For 50 years, Boyle Street Community Services has supported Edmonton's most vulnerable with services and supports.

"I think Boyle Street's existence in our city has really proven that our staff and our partners will always come together, despite whatever is happening in the world," Boyle Street's Freya Hammond-Thrasher said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active.

"We are continually astounded by the way that Edmontonians come forward to help us in a time of need."

While the pandemic has made it difficult to plan for anniversary celebrations, the agency is launching a new section of its website to honour 50 years of stories and successes. It includes a timeline of important milestones in the organization's history. Hammond-Thrasher is a communications coordinator who has been researching and writing for the project.

The agency, a trailblazer for initiatives both local and national, has had five different main locations throughout the years.

Today, Boyle Street runs more than 40 programs and 13 locations across the city, but it all started with the Boyle Street Information Centre, in a neighbourhood just northeast of downtown.

The Native Brotherhood Society started the information centre in the late 1960s to help Indigenous people living in Edmonton's inner city get access to services they needed.

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"In the '60s, there were a lot more newcomers and Indigenous Peoples coming into the city of Edmonton looking for work," Hammond-Thrasher said, with many working on road projects leading into the city.

"Then when they got here, they kind of found themselves trapped with the work dried up and maybe they didn't speak English."

In 1971, founding members established the Boyle Street Co-op in the Windsor Rooms Hotel, donated by the City of Edmonton. The organization delivered a range of services and had five paid staff members by that time.

The co-op moved to its second location at the O.K. Steam Bath Hotel in 1977, securing more funding from multiple government levels and opening its first drop-in room for community members.

In 1986, it moved to its third location in the old municipal courthouse building downtown.

By 1995, the agency was itself without a home. Its lease on the old courthouse expired. The site became the home of the Winspear Centre.

"We had to move and we could not seem to find anywhere in Edmonton that wanted to have us as their neighbours," Hammond-Thrasher said. "There was a lot of stigma at the time towards the population that we were serving."

Staff worked where they could — from an office out of a drugstore downtown, in parks or in coffee shops.

"It really proves a testament to how much we serve our community through thick and thin."

Boyle Street established its current main building at 10116 105th Ave. by the end of 1995.

A series of firsts

Hammond-Thrasher said Boyle Street was one of the first drop-in spaces that served everyone, regardless of religion or substance use.

In the 1980s, the agency started NeedleWorks — one of the first needle-exchange programs in the city, running on a harm reduction model. It has since evolved into the StreetWorks program, which provides help to substance users, sex workers and others.

Staff and community members held a candlelit march in 1995 when Boyle Street's lease ran out at the the former courthouse building, now the site of the Winspear Centre. (Submitted by Boyle Street Community Services)

In 1995, Boyle Street started one of Alberta's first charter schools. The Boyle Street Education Centre, still open today, teaches youth who have had interruptions in their formal learning.

In 2011, it received funding for its Street Outreach team, which has allowed the agency to reach out to community members to check up with and connect more people to services.

Boyle Street has grown steadily since it got off the ground. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began early last year, staff numbered just over 300, but the needs of the pandemic have seen that number grow to around 400.

Some 85,000 square feet at the Edmonton Convention Centre is being used as daytime and overnight shelter space until March 31. (City of Edmonton )

Last fall, Boyle Street was involved in the opening of a temporary shelter at the Edmonton Expo Centre.

More recently, it was one of the agencies involved in establishing Tipinawâw, Cree for "sheltered from the elements, cold and wind," at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

The temporary space is offering services and shelter to about 300 people through the cold winter months.

There have been 5,500 check-ins from 3,500 unique individuals at Tipinawâw since it started, Hammond-Thrasher said.

"It's just an incredible accomplishment for our whole sector that Boyle Street's involved in."

Boyle Street hopes to celebrate the major milestone with one of its signature block parties but with COVID-19 the future is uncertain.

"We do have a lot of events planned and on the horizon," Hammond-Thrasher said. 

"But right now, what I'd like to say is just ask everyone to check out our 50th anniversary website, where you can hear a lot more of the amazing stories that we've written up about Boyle street over our last 50 years."