Downtown community steps up with water bottle donations for Edmonton's vulnerable communities

As the summer in Edmonton drags on amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down many outdoor public water fountains, access to water has been a growing concern for the people Boyle Street Community Services supports.

COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult to provide public drinking water sources.

Boyle Street Community Services are accepting bottled water donations to help them ensure they can continue to provide drinking water for the clients and community they support. (Manuel Carrilos/CBC)

Access to water has become a growing problem for the people Boyle Street Community Services supports, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down many public fountains.

A fountain in the back of the non-profit, which sits at 101st Street and 105th Avenue, was installed in 2016 to provide a source of fresh drinking water, and help prevent dehydration during the summer months. But earlier this year, Boyle Street had to turn off the tap so it wouldn't become a hotspot for COVID-19 spread.

Elliott Tanti, communications and development manager at Boyle Street, said this decision was understandable especially since COVID-19 could spread quickly through Edmonton's homeless population. But losing a vital resource like their fountain created a big gap to fill, as one of the few public water fountains in downtown Edmonton.

"There isn't a lot of public washrooms. Generally those spaces are reserved for people who are patrons of businesses. So the limitation to access of water is immense during regular times," Tanti said.

When their public tap was turned off, Boyle Street started purchasing more bottled water to meet that need. But their supplies go quickly. Bottles are offered to people inside and around their building, and throughout the surrounding community. Many of the conversations Boyle Street's outreach teams have on hot days with the people they help start with offering a bottle of water.

As Boyle Street has needed to buy more flats of water, this has put added some financial pressure. But a large outpouring of support, especially in the last few days, has provided some relief. After some Boyle Street staff talked about this issue on social media, Tanti said Edmontonians have stepped up with their own donations.

"I am always a bit taken aback by the generosity of Edmontonians. It seems like the moment they hear that there's a need, people just spring into action," Tanti said.

In a statement from Alberta Health Services on Saturday, they said their public health guidance states water fountains may remain open, and should be cleaned and disinfected frequently. Tanti said Boyle Street had to shut down their fountain because it's outside and couldn't be watched and cleaned regularly when the building is closed.

Donations of bottled water can be dropped off at the Boyle Street Community Centre between 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on weekdays. Many have stepped up to help meet this need, like Justin McMurdo.

McMurdo, a longtime resident of Edmonton's Riverdale neighbourhood near Boyle Street, learned this past week that the site's community tap was turned off. He started organizing with neighbours and offered to make daily trips to Costco to buy 10 cases, using the contributions from more than 20 other people.

He started these daily trips Thursday and so far has raised enough money to continue until early this week. With a lot of time on his hands after the pandemic wiped out much of his schedule as a photographer, McMurdo said he wanted to do something productive with that time.

"It's a reality already that we have a growing issue with our homeless community," McMurdo said. "We seem to be ignoring it and not individually as people taking opportunities to help. This is just one of those moments where a single person could help."

Providing access to drinking water for Edmonton's homeless population is a cause that's also long been taken up by the Arcadia Brewing Company.

Darren McGeown, Arcadia's owner, has spent the last five summers delivering flats of water to Boyle Street, usually twice per week. In Arcadia's former location on 124th Street, McGeown said he'd often buy a bottle of water for every pint sold.

This year, he's raised thousands of dollars for the same cause, delivering 20 flats of water to Boyle Street every Tuesday. Now that he's heard the public tap was turned off and some hot weeks ahead for Edmonton, McGeown said he expects he'll have to deliver even more.

"Some people may think of homeless people and the rough winters here in Edmonton, but it's maybe an afterthought in the summertime. But to think that some people don't have accessibility to water is shocking," McGeown said.

"It's all year long that they need our help, it's not just a winter issue."