300 people will be searching for places to sleep following closure of downtown Tipinawâw shelter

The emergency pandemic shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre closed Friday and with that comes uncertainty about how hundreds of people will find a secure place to sleep. 

Edmonton Convention Centre facility also served 600 people daily during daytime hours

Some 5,000 unique individuals used services at the Edmonton Convention Centre's Tipinawâwshelter since last October. (David Bajer/CBC)

The emergency pandemic shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre closed Friday and with that comes uncertainty about how hundreds of people will find a secure place to sleep. 

The shelter, Tipinawâw, accommodated about 300 people a night and 600 during the day. Since it opened in October, about 5,000 separate individuals used the space.  

The shelter was a collaborative effort by a number of agencies: Boyle Street Community Services, Bissell Centre, the Mustard Seed, Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, Homeward Trust and the City of Edmonton. It provided essential services such as meals, laundry, showers, mental health counselling and housing guidance.

A new shelter, which will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will open in early May in the Spectrum building on the former Northlands racetrack site. It will provide 150 beds. 

Hope Mission will run this shelter, replacing about 120 spaces at the Commonwealth Stadium the agency has run since October.

'We're worried'

In a news release Friday, the city said the provincial government has indicated there's sufficient space to accommodate everyone who needs emergency shelter in Edmonton.

"There is available space for overnight shelter currently in the system," the release said.

But where those spaces are found is still unclear.

The Mustard Seed runs four sites  — all in churches —  on Edmonton's south side, accommodating about 120 people overnight. 

Dean Kurpjuweit, executive director of the Mustard Seed, said the south-side lodgings are at or near capacity almost every night. With only room for a handful of new clients, Kurpjuweit says it's unclear where the 300 people who stayed at Tipinawâw will find shelter. 

"We're worried about where these people will go," Kurpjuweit told CBC News Friday. "We don't feel that there's adequate spaces at this point for people that need overnight shelter."

Tipinawâw at the Convention Centre opened in October to help comply with physical distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. It replaced the emergency pandemic shelter at the Expo Centre. 

It cost nearly $14 million to run Tipinawâw, with the federal and provincial governments providing $8 million in COVID-19 specific funding. The city contributed $2.5 million to the downtown operation and the rest came from Homeward Trust and other programs.

Camps expected to reappear

The city has a new plan to manage camps that crop up, which it anticipates will happen again this year. Last year, Camp Pekiwewin and another camp at the Light Horse Park in Old Strathcona became temporary homes to hundreds of people.

Kurpjuweit and agencies on the front lines expect to see tents and tarps gather again this summer. 

"That's a natural reaction, right? You have no place to sleep. Well, where do you sleep? You sleep outside," Kurpjuweit said. "They need some place to go and if there's no shelter space for them, this is their only alternative."

Elliott Tanti, communications manager for Boyle Street Community Services, noted that camps appear every year with the nicer weather. 

"We know for certain that the number of camps are going to increase over the next period of time," Tanti said. I think what's important to think about is why an individual would make the decision to choose to camp rather than attend a shelter."

Day services

The Bissell Centre, at 96th Street and 105th Avenue, and Boyle Street Community Services, at 101st Street and 105th Avenue, will offer daytime services. Boyle Street plans to add additional space outside that will help with physical distancing requirements.

The city is also funding an extra 90 spaces at the two centres.

Earlier this week, city councillors rejected a proposal for the city to contract Bissell Centre to run a new drop-in centre at 105th Street and 105th Avenue. 

The committee directed the city to come up with alternative ideas for daytime services and report back on Monday.