Edmonton

Edmonton struggling to find funds to operate specialized housing units for homeless people

The fate of more than 300 Edmonton apartments for people transitioning from chronic homelessness is in limbo since the Alberta government didn’t include money in its recent budget to run new permanent support housing projects.

Fate of 348 units in limbo as city needs $9M a year the province didn't fund in budget

The supportive housing complex in Wellington is one of five projects the city is building this year and slated to open to tenants in the spring. (Douglas Sernecky)

The fate of more than 300 apartment units in Edmonton for people transitioning from chronic homelessness is in limbo since the latest provincial budget has no funding to run new permanent supportive housing projects.

The City of Edmonton asked the province for $9 million a year to help operate the specialized housing, five buildings of which are currently under construction and slated to open this spring. 

Two hotels are being converted into permanent housing, for a total of 348 units due to open by June. 

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he was counting on those operating dollars, the minimum required to run the facilities.

"We will be scrambling to run those or they will stay vacant," Sohi said after the budget was released last week. "That is a tragedy." 

Housing agencies, however, are determined to find the money.

Susan McGee, CEO of housing steward Homeward Trust, said the complexes were designed and built specifically for people transitioning from chronic homelessness with mental health and addictions issues. 

"We certainly don't envision a future where they're left vacant," McGee said in an interview Thursday. "But it's not going to be easy to make them work, for sure." 

Homeward Trust is responsible for securing the money and choosing agencies to operate the permanent supportive housing, which requires staff on site 24/7 to help tenants with a range of services, including mental health and addictions support. 

The average complex needs the equivalent of 11 full-time staff, she said, costing about $1 to $1.2 million a year.

She said Homeward Trust is combing through existing programs to see where it can come up with the money. 

It may be faced with taking money from programs and projects, such as its Housing First, youth intervention and rental assistance, she said. 

It could mean that people who've become homeless may have to wait longer to get help with rent. 

"If we have to reduce some of the capacity of that program, it will mean housing slower," McGee noted. "Those are the options that we struggle with certainly, because we have seen such an increase in homelessness." 

Homeward Trust reported that the number of people identifying as homeless doubled during the pandemic and as of this week totalled more than 2,900. 

Demand exceeds supply

The city moved quickly in 2020 to capitalize on funding from the federal government's Rapid Housing Initiative, which required the buildings to be complete by 2022.

Projects are nearly finished in Inglewood, King Edward Park, Terrace Heights, Wellington and Westmount. 

As well, two hotels are being converted into permanent supportive units.

The Sands Inn & Suites on Fort Road will include 53 units and be run by Niginan Housing Ventures. The Mustard Seed is converting the former Days Inn on University Avenue into 85 units. 

Dean Kurpjuweit, chief regional officer with the Mustard Seed, said he was hoping to see additional money from the province.

"The level of provincial funding needs to be increased to end homelessness; unfortunately the demand for PSH (permanent supportive housing) exceeds the supply," Kurpjuweit said in an email Thursday. 

"We are disappointed that additional PSH funding was not allocated, as one negative result of the pandemic is a dramatic increase in our homeless population."

However, Kurpjuweit said he's figured out how to operate the units from the Mustard Seed's general donation pool and rental assistance programs. 

Coun. Anne Stevenson said Homeward Trust and city administration are working hard to find the funding. 

"We've been left with very few options," she said. "Unfortunately we could very easily lose this opportunity, very easily lose these desperately needed supportive housing spaces." 

The 348 apartments within the seven complexes are part of the city's goal of creating 900 permanent supportive housing units by 2024.

Minister of Community and Social Services Jason Luan said in an emailed statement that the new budget maintains existing operational funding for housing with supports, which includes $29 million for Homeward Trust Edmonton.

"We are working with Homeward Trust to ensure government funding provided to move individuals experiencing homelessness is directed to priority projects, such as supportive housing, within current funding allocations."

Luan noted the province's homelessness task force will be making recommendations on the province's response to homelessness and will include additional options for housing and support services.

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