Edmonton

Edmonton mayor presses province to step up as EXPO shelter prepares to close

Mayor Don Iveson is calling on the province to work with local agencies to ensure homeless Edmontonians have access to critical services as a massive drop-in program shuts its doors this week.

'We do not want to see the progress that we've made so far protecting vulnerable people come into jeopardy.'

Beds in the isolation area at the EXPO Centre are spread out to follow the rules of social distancing. (Supplied by Ron Ramsay)

Mayor Don Iveson is calling on the province to work with local agencies to ensure homeless Edmontonians have access to critical services as an emergency shelter shuts its doors this week.

On Saturday, the Edmonton EXPO Centre is set to close with no alternative plan for the roughly 500 people who rely on it for daily support in an already overburdened shelter system.

The temporary shelter was set up during the pandemic to safely provide food, medical support, protection from the elements and other supports. It also houses an isolation unit for people showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Iveson said social service agencies are doing their best to find a solution but housing is the responsibility of the province and its support is needed.  

"The province needs to do the right thing and work with our local agencies to ensure that they have the supports they need to keep their clients safe which in turn will keep our communities safe and prevent further spreading of the virus," Iveson said Wednesday, adding that he was scheduled to speak to Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney that afternoon.

"We do not want to see the progress that we've made so far protecting vulnerable people come into jeopardy." 

A statement from Sawhney said more information about a transition plan should be available in the coming days.

"We know COVID-19 is still with us, so we must continue to support Albertans experiencing homelessness," she said. "This is why we will continue working with the City of Edmonton, Alberta Health Services and community service providers to ensure these supports and services can be accessed elsewhere in Edmonton."

Options being explored

At a special council meeting Wednesday, the city administration said sites are being assessed but the challenge is finding a large enough space due to requirements of physical distancing.

Options being looked at include City of Edmonton facilities, warehouse and office spaces, former schools and temporary structures. 

Iveson noted that there is a lot of infrastructure not in use this summer due to the cancellation of festivals.

Negotiations are underway to lease a space for homeless Edmontonians who show symptoms of COVID-19, councillors heard. In the meantime, the isolation unit at the EXPO Centre will stay open a little longer for those who need to self-isolate.

The administration said the closure was due to the end of provincial funding, the end of the state of local emergency and the need for the EXPO Centre to resume its normal function.

Coun. Scott McKeen expressed concern that the isolation centre and support services would no longer be under one roof.

"If we disperse the community into camps around the urban realm … how do we know when somebody becomes symptomatic?," McKeen asked. "How do we pull them out of that situation and get them to the isolation centre when we don't have that more controlled environment where people were being watched?"

Boyle Street Community Centre and the Edmonton Public Library are looking at ways to provide additional temporary outdoor services next week, council heard.

A coalition of frontline workers and Black and Indigenous organizers is providing resources to people experiencing homelessness at a camp in the Rossdale neighbourhood.

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