Edmonton

City spends $1.8M to ensure day shelter remains open for Edmonton's homeless

Edmonton's Bissell Centre is getting financial help from the city so it can continue providing day services to thousands of homeless people over the next six months.

Money will allow Bissell Centre to operate at least 8 hours a day for 6 months

The city is working on a new encampment strategy to help mitigate issues related to homeless camps, like the one in Rossdale in 2020. (Dave Bajer/CBC News)

Edmonton's Bissell Centre is getting financial help from the city so it can continue providing day services to thousands of homeless people over the next six months.

City council agreed Tuesday to give the centre $1.8 million from the city's emergency COVID-19 fund, which was established at the beginning of the pandemic.

City manager Andre Corbould told council the shelter needs the money promptly, as the current funding deal for the shelter at 105th Avenue and 96th Street ends on April 30. It will take the centre through the next six months.

"We need to get going on this now," Corbould said. 

Gary St. Amand, CEO of the Bissell Centre, said the money will let it stay open at least eight hours a day, six days a week and offer basic services like food, clothing, showers and laundry. 

"It's such a significant thing in terms of the ability to connect with those resources for folks who have no other real opportunities," St. Amand said in an interview Tuesday. 

Between May and December last year, some 5,200 clients used the centre, he said. 

Christel Kjenner, acting director of social development with the city, said the extended funding will also allow the centre to offer Indigenous cultural services and referrals to housing. 

The funding that's set to expire was part of the city's $10-million COVID-19 specific support approved by council in 2021 to increase day shelter capacity at Boyle Street Community Services, Bissell Centre and The Mustard Seed. 

Going forward, Boyle Street and The Mustard Seed will fund their own operations through fundraising and grants, as they did before the pandemic, Kjenner said. 

City needs more shelter spaces

Corbould noted the request won't be the last.

"This is one request coming forward today," Corbould said. "There's a bunch more coming forward and a bunch more work we're doing with the province to try to get them to pay." 

Corbould said he's trying to set up a meeting with the deputy minister of Alberta's community and social services department to secure future shelter funding.

A statement from the department noted that Homeward Trust Edmonton receives about $29 million a year; in 2021-22,  Homeward Trust provided about $1.86 million to the Bissell Centre for various services.

Encampments

The city is also working on an encampment strategy, which administration plans to present to councillors later this month. Corbould noted that the Bissell funding should mitigate some new camps popping up. 

"This is one piece to help alleviate the encampment issue but we're going to need more shelter space this summer and through next winter."

Keren Tang, councillor for Ward Karhiio, said the money is a reprieve but not a long-term solution to issues related to homelessness. 

She's heard concerns from downtown businesses and residents in surrounding communities, including Chinatown. 

"I also heard from the front-line workers loud and clear that this is the worst they've seen during the time that they've been working in this role," she said. 

Homelessness doubles

The number of people falling into homelessness in Edmonton has doubled since December 2019, just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Anne Stevenson, Ward O-day'min councillor, is worried about what's to come this year. 

"I have a lot of concerns that this summer is going to be one of the worst that we experienced," Stevenson said. "I can't help coming to the conclusion that a managed encampment might have to be part of the conversation as we talk about an encampment strategy." 

Corbould said his team is including that tool in the strategy. 

Also at the meeting Tuesday, council agreed the city should collaborate with agencies and Alberta Health Services on establishing drug-checking programs.

Coun. Erin Rutherford presented the idea in a motion, noting that other jurisdictions in Canada run programs that check drugs for contaminants.

"We don't have drug-checking services, which are a proven and effective, easy and cheap harm-reduction strategy," Rutherford said. "We're talking about people dying on the streets and this is absolutely something that can prevent that." 

Council is requesting administration report back in September this year with information on potential drug-checking programs.

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